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Crisis of the hOufie divided 







An Interpretation 

of the Issues in 

the Lincoln-Douglas 



Doubkday b Company, Inc., Garden City, New Yodfc 

Library of Congress Catalog Card Number 59^0671 
Copyright 1959 ty Harry V. Jaffa 

Ml Rights Reserved 

Printed in the United States of America 
First Edition 

To my Father and Mother 


Two foundations contributed to the research and writing of this 
book. I was recipient of a Faculty Fellowship from the Fund for 
the Advancement of Education (Ford Foundation) in 1952-53, 
and of a grant from the Rockefeller Foundation, under its program 
in legal and political philosophy, during 1956-57. By the en- 
lightened practices of these great foundations, they have had no 
prior knowledge of the results of my studies and can, therefore, 
have no responsibility for them. 

I would like to express my gratitude to Mrs. James G. Randall 
for permission to quote from a letter by her husband to the author, 
and to the following publishers for permission to quote from books 
bearing their imprint: Dodd, Mead and Company; Harper and 
Brothers; Houghton Mifflin Company; Alfred A. Knopf; Prince- 
ton University Press; Rutgers University Press; Charles Scribner's 
Sons; University of Kentucky Press; University of New Mexico 


Tms volume is the first in what it is hopedwill be a two-part 
study of Lincoln's political philosophy. Corresponding to Crisis of 
the House Divided would be (inevitably) A New Birth of 
Freedom. I would not so rashly give the name of a book not yet 
written had it had not been a convenient symbol of my conception 
of the axis upon which Lincoln's career and thought turned an 
axis constituted by the House Divided speech and the Gettysburg 

Although it belongs to a larger whole, the present work is in- 
tended to have a unity of its own. I have attempted a thorough 
explication of the political principles by which Lincoln was guided 
from his re-entry into politics in 1854 until and through the Senate 
campaign against Douglas in 1858. To understand these princi- 
ples, however, I have found it necessary to interpret the great 
occasional speeches of his early Whig period. This I have done 
in Part III, wherein I tacitly reject the prevailing view of Lincoln's 
slow growth to maturity: it is my conviction that he was extraordi- 
narily precocious but that part of that precocity consisted in the 
self-control that compelled a supremely ambitious man to be a 
political follower when leadership could be seized only by irre- 
sponsibility. I have not, however except by implication dealt 
with Lincoln's position on political questions, as distinct from po- 
litical principles, during his Whig period. Recent historiography 
has dealt harshly with him because of his partisan stand, both on 
internal improvements and on the Mexican War. The principles 
of this historiography are virtually identical with that revisionism 
which condemns him so bitterly for his opposition to Douglas in 
(and before) 1858. This latter condemnation is the subject of the 
critique with which this book begins and ends; and it is my hope, 
in still another study, to discuss critically the practical policies of 
Henry Clay's follower, as I have done those of the Republican 


Lincoln was elected to the presidency upon the issues and, 
largely, upon the speeches of the 1858 campaign. Although the 
secession crisis, as distinct from that concerning slavery in the 
territories, dominated the period after 1858, there is no sharp 
cleavage between the two. I have attempted to express herein 
the fall meaning only of Lincoln's debate with Douglas from 1854 
to 1858, yet I have not hesitated to borrow occasionally from 
Lincoln's 1859 and 1860 speeches when it was felt that such 
borrowing clarified the meaning of what he had said earlier. No 
endeavor has been made, however, to interpret with equal fullness 
that final phase of the debate between Lincoln and Douglas which 
merges into the election of 1860 and the secession crisis. This, I 
feel, belongs properly to the treatment of the war years. 

The crisis of the house divided was the spiritual crisis which 
preceded secession and war. It is the thesis of this volume that, 
had not Lincoln challenged Douglas in 1858, there would proba- 
bly have been no subsequent crisis, or at least none of the same 
nature. In 1858, by effectively destroying Douglas as the leader 
of a national political coalition, by dividing him both from the 
Republicans and from the South, Lincoln made morally certain 
that the nation would be constitutionally committed to his view 
of national political responsibility, a view which he well knew 
most of the South believed incompatible with its dearest interests. 
The crisis of the war years, with all its agony and possibility of 
failure, was yet in a profound sense less critical than the moment 
in which the commitment which produced it was being debated. 
The two crises differed as the defense of something differs from 
the decision to defend it. Or, to use the familiar metaphor which 
dominated Lincoln's own vision of America's experience, they dif- 
fered as the Passion differed from the Temptation in the 
Wilderness. This study is meant to record, not without suggesting 
something of its passion, Lincoln's conception of the intellectual 
content of that moment of deliberation when the nation, as he 
believed, was tempted to abandon its "ancient faith." 

Since Lincoln's thought emerges, in considerable measure, in 
dialectical fashion from the context of his continuing debate with 
Douglas, it can be understood only in the light of the contrasting 
policies and principles of his doughty antagonist. I have therefore 
attempted to re-create as fully as possible the moral and political 
horizon of the Little Giant. Douglas was a gallant as well as a 


powerful opponent, and he was a great American. If he was a 
lesser man than Lincoln it was because, at a moment when 
national purposes were confused and national identity obscured, 
patriotism was not enough. Yet I have sought to describe the large 
measure of consistency and of dignity that I believe Douglas's 
measures genuinely possessed. This, however, required a some- 
what different kind of effort than did the interpretation of the 
fundamentals of Lincoln's thought. Douglas never left any record 
of reflections upon the issues raised by the whole American ex- 
periment in free government (the Harpers essay is only an appar- 
ent exception), such as Lincoln did in his earlier years, in the 
Lyceum and Temperance addresses, and in his Gettysburg and 
Second Inaugural addresses later. To describe convincingly the 
larger meaning of Douglas's statesmanship in his encounter with 
Lincoln, it has been necessary to elucidate his policy from a de- 
tailed review of his tactical maneuvers in dealing with slavery in 
the territories, from the Texas annexation resolutions in 1845 until 
the Senate report accompanying the revised Nebraska bill in 
January 1854. This I have done in Chapters V through VIII, 
wherein I also advance and defend the theory that the repeal of 
the Missouri Compromise was forced upon Douglas against his 
own intention. It is in the light of this theory that I have passed 
over, in charitable silence, those utterly meretricious arguments 
with which Douglas specifically vindicated the repeal. 

It has been a problem, for which I crave the reader's indulgence, 
to know how to draw the line between padding the text with 
historical information and unwarrantably assuming a knowledge 
of the facts needed to comprehend the progress of the argument 
of this book. Because of the demands made by much of the reason- 
ing, I have generally resolved my doubts by omitting anything 
that would, in my judgment, lengthen the already difficult span 
between evidence and inference, between premises and conclu- 
sions. In Appendix I, I have put in concise form the most im- 
portant historical facts upon which this study rests and which are 
not fully explained in the text. I hope it will be adequate for 
those who have not recently read any general history of the first 
fourscore years of the Republic. 

"Silence,* our poet tells us, "is the perfectest herald of joy." 
And little would I understand of what I owe to others were I 


to try to say how great my obligations are. Lest silence be misin- 
terpretednot, however, by those to whom my debts are due let 
me mention, first of all, Professor Leo Strauss of the University of 
Chicago, who directed my graduate studies from 1944 to 1949 at 
the Graduate Faculty of Political and Social Science of the New 
School for Social Research. He was and is my teacher, in a sense 
now archaic but not less vital for being old. The only limits of 
the scholar's profit have been his own capacity. 

Professor Joseph Cropsey, also of the University of Chicago, 
would have written a better book on these themes had I not pre- 
empted them. I only add that the offices of friendship have not 
been merely negative and that he has fulfilled them in overflow- 
ing measure. 

I owe much to the enthusiastic interest of Professors Allan 
Bloom of the University of Chicago and Martin Diamond, 
formerly of Chicago, now of Claremont Men's College. Frequent 
discussions with these gentlemen during the year I was working 
on this book in Chicago were invaluable in stimulating and clarify- 
ing my thoughts. 

My wife typed this, as she has all my manuscripts. Her tactful 
suggestions, because of their unobtrusiveness, have probably had 
a more pervasive influence than I am aware of. The foregoing, 
however, have been the least of her contributions, although they 
are not little. On the frontiers of scholarship, the work of the 
pioneer wife continues, abating neither in hardship nor dignity. 

Finally, I would speak of those to whom this book is dedicated. 
It was many years after I first borrowed Lincoln books from the 
Yale library for my father that I began to read them myself. The 
exemplary method, if sometimes slow, is the surest. And if, after 
my father, I became a Lincolnophile, so was I taught to love the 
things that Lincoln loved by my mother. 

Harry V. Jaffa 

October 7, 1958 

The Ohio State University 

Columbus, Ohio 


Acknowledgments 7 

Preface 9 


I. 1958: The Crisis in Historical Judgment 19 

II. 1858: Lincoln versus Douglas. The Alternatives 28 


III. Slavery 41 

IV. Manifest Destiny 63 
V. The Repeal of the Missouri Compromise I. The 

Legal Power and Practical Impotence of Federal 
Prohibitions of Slavery in the Territories 104 

VI. The Repeal of the Missouri Compromise II. Did 
the Compromise of 1850 "Supersede" the Mis- 
souri Compromise? 133 
VII. The Repeal of the Missouri Compromise III. 

What Douglas Intended on January 4, 1854 147 

VIII. The Repeal of the Missouri Compromise IV. 

Tragedy. The Extremes Crush the Mean 171 


IX. The Teaching Concerning Political Salvation 183 

X. The Teaching Concerning Political Moderation 236 


XI. Hie Legal Tendency toward Slavery Expansion 275 
XII. The Political Tendency toward Slavery Expansion 294 


XIII. The Intrinsic Evil of the Repeal of the Missouri 

XIV. The Universal Meaning of the Declaration of 
Independence 308 

XV. The Form and Substance of Political Freedom 

in the Modern World 330 
XVI. Popular Sovereignty: True and False 347 
XVII. The Meaning of Equality: Abstract and Practical 363 
XVIII. The "Natural Limits" of Slavery Expansion 387 
XIX. Did the Republicans Abandon Lincoln's Prin- 
ciples after the Election of 1860? 400 
XX. The End of Manifest Destiny 405 

Notes 410 


Appendix I. Some of the Historical Background to the 

Lincoln-Douglas Debates 430 

Appendix II. Some Notes on the Dred Scott Decision 441 

Index 447 

O, it is excellent 

To have a giant's strength; but it is tyrannous 

To use it like a giant. 

Measure for Measure, Act II, Sc. ii. 

But in these cases 

We still have judgment here; that we but teach 
Bloody instructions, which, being taught, return 
To plague the inventor: this even-handed justice 
Commends the ingredients of our poison'd chalice 
To our own lips. 

Macbeth, Act I, Sc. vii. 



Chapter I 
1958: The Crisis in Historical Judgment 

A CENTURY has not diminished the fame of the Lincoln-Douglas 
debates. They are justly regarded as the greatest in American his- 
tory, although in a deeper sense they constitute as well a unique 
episode in the history of free government in the Western world. 
It is doubtful that any forensic duel, any clash of reasoned argu- 
ment before a popular audienceor, for that matter, before any 
legislative body ever held the power of decision over the future 
of a great people as these debates did. Whatever their intrinsic 
merits, the magnitude of their consequences, for good or evil, is 
as undeniable as it is incalculable. By opposing Douglas for the 
senatorship in the Illinois campaign of 1858, Lincoln prevented 
the Little Giant from capturing the leadership of the free-soil 
movement, possibly even of the Republican party itself, at a mo- 
ment when Douglas was being looked upon with the greatest 
favor by eastern leaders of the party. At the same time that he 
forced Douglas into a warfare with the Republicans that opened 
an impassable breach between them and thereby kept open the 
place for leadership which he himself soon filled Lincoln 
also compelled Douglas to take ground that brought about a new 
and more disastrous split in the Democratic party, a split which 
contributed mightily to the election of a Republican, and minority 
President, in 1860. Thus did Lincoln forge a great link in the chain 
of events that led to secession and civil war. 

Popular tradition has surrounded the debates with the aura 
which, in retrospect at least, always attends a clash of champions. 
It has ascribed to them a level of dialectic and rhetoric befitting 
such a match. As to the intensity of the campaign and the 


emotions it stirred in the principals and followers on both sides, 
there can be no question. But the real worth of the debates cannot 
be judged merely by popular tradition, particularly when it is re- 
membered that that tradition is today largely the tradition of the 
descendants of Lincoln's camp, for the debates proved the spring- 
board whose momentum carried Lincoln to the White House and 
to the chief responsibility for the nation's safety in its greatest 
crisis. This tradition, finding a dramatic foil for its hero in Douglas, 
has pictured Douglas as a brilliant but unscrupulous "dough-face," 
a "northern man with southern principles," whose high-flying 
career was finally brought to earth by Lincoln's supreme political 
logic. According to this view, what Socrates was to the Sophists, 
what Sherlock Holmes was to Dr. Moriarty, what St. George was 
to the dragon, so Lincoln was to Douglas. The analogy with 
Socrates is perhaps the most apt, when it is remembered that 
Lincoln is thought to have wrought Douglas's downfall with a cer- 
tain famous question. 

But this view of the debates is not regarded highly today by 
leading authorities of the historical profession. "Solely on their 
merits," writes Albert J. Beveridge in a classic biography pub- 
lished in 1928, "the debates themselves deserve little notice." This 
judgment is repeated nearly twenty years later by James G. 
Randall, widely regarded today as the foremost academic author- 
ity on Lincoln, who also quotes with approval the opinion of 
George Fort Milton, the leading biographer and advocate of the 
cause of Douglas. "Judged as debates, they do not measure up 
to their reputation. On neither side did the dialectic compare with 
that in the debates between Webster, Hayne, and Calhoun." 1 

If this were a mere dash of critical cold water upon a piece 
of folklore, it would perhaps not much matter. The literary 
insignificance of campaign speeches is notorious, and the debates 
were, after all, campaign speeches. X^t this agreement of more 
recent opinion contrasts remarkably, not only with the folklore, 
but with the mature and scholarly judgment of the more distant 
past James Ford Rhodes, writing in the early iSgo's, said that 
Lincoln, in the campaign of 1858 as well as in his speeches on 
the repeal of the Missouri Compromise and on the Dred Scott 
decision, had formulated "a body of Republican doctrine which in 
consistency, cogency, and fitness can nowhere be equalled." And 
Rhodes, who was the supreme admirer of the great apostle of 
the Union, could write that "such clearness of statement and ir- 


refragable proofs had not been known since the death of Webster." 
As for rhetoric, Lincoln's "bursts of eloquence, under the influence 
of noble passion, are still read with delight by the lovers of 
humanity and constitutional government" "Listening to the argu- 
ments of Lincoln and Douglas," said Rhodes, "the meanest voter 
of Illinois must have felt that he was one of the jury in a cause 
of transcendent importance, and that . . . the ablest advocates 
of the country were appealing to him . . /* 2 Lord Charnwood, 
writing his famous memoir a generation after Rhodes, goes even 
further, in his opinion that Lincoln, in the debates, had "per- 
formed what, apart from results, was a work of intellectual merit 
beyond the compass of any American statesman since Hamilton." 3 
The alteration of historical judgments is a phenomenon all too 
familiar to every student. It is no accident that the school of which 
Randall was the leading member and exponent calls itself, self- 
consciously, revisionist. The work of "revision" is characterized by 
him in the preface to his masterpiece, the multi-volumed Lincoln 
the President, as follows: "If sources are diligently re-examined, 
then by the same token the product may become 'revisionist/ 
Even in a simple matter it is not easy after the passage of years 
to recover the true picture. If the past situation was complicated, 
if many factors went into its making, if observers at the time 
lacked full understanding or differed as to what it meant, and 
especially if it has become controversial, then an uncommon effort 
is needed to disengage reality from the accumulated deposit 
which the years have brought . . .Evidence is. . .unearthed. . . 
Discoloring is corrected, partisan misrepresentation ... is ex- 
posed . . . Historical insight cuts through with a new clarity . . . 
This is called 'revision/ but that suggests mere change or rewrit- 
ing; a much better word for it would be historical restoration." 
Randall then likens the work of the true historian to that of an 
archaeologist: "Where a building belonging to a past age has 
disappeared or fallen into ruin, there is the process of studying 
available traces and records, examining the period, and gradually 
building up a 'restoration' to show the structure as it originally 
stood. With a like motive the historian seeks out original records, 
excavates, so to speak, clears away unhistorical debris, and 
endeavors, if he can, to restore events and essential situations of 
the past/' Randall does not, therefore, like some contemporary his- 
torians, 4 think it sufficient to replace the prejudices of one 
generation with those of another in the rewriting of history. While 


the revisionist does not expect to achieve perfection in his work, 
"he does hope by fresh inquiry to come nearer to past reality." 
"New conclusions come not from preconception, assuredly not 
from a wish to overthrow or destroy. The historian searches; he 
presents his findings; if he works validly he destroys nothing ex- 
cept misconception and unfounded tradition." It is in this spirit, 
we are told, that "the Lincoln-Douglas debates [have been] 

The impression is, I think, inescapable that the severe judgment 
upon the merits of these debates, coming after generations had 
looked upon them as an intellectual and moral contest of the 
highest order of which democratic politics admits, is a conse- 
quence of the rise and application of scientific historical method. 
This impression is greatly strengthened when it is discovered that 
revisionism differs from both the popular and scholarly tradition 
concerning the debates, not merely in the judgment of quality to 
which we have adverted, but on a substantive question of the 
first magnitude. For the depreciation of the debates is accom- 
panied by indeed, it may be the consequence of a debunking 
of the belief which is at the root of their fame: the belief that 
Lincoln had opposed Douglas on a great issue and for the sake 
of a great cause. Randall, in his "reanalysis," 5 concludes that 
Lincoln and Douglas only "seemed to diffef" (Randall's italics) 
while actually they were in substantial agreement on all important 
questions. "For the debate to have had significance," he writes 
with marked emphasis, "the contestants would . . . have been ex- 
pected to enter upon the practical and substantial results of their 
contrary positions." When, however, early in the canvass, "each 
candidate sought to impale his opponent upon the spikes of for- 
mal interrogation," it turned out that only upon the question of the 
prohibition of slavery in the national territories was there a 
difference. "Yet even on that point the difference was not vital 
in its practical effect upon the results. That is to say, in the 
territories that existed or might later be organized, Lincoln's de- 
mand of Congressional prohibition for slavery would produce 
freedom, but so would Douglas's principle of popular sovereignty 
honestly applied." The "only point of difference," then, itself turns 
out, according to Randall, to be "a talking point rather than a 
matter for governmental action, a campaign appeal rather than 
a guide for legislation." 

It must be apparent that the judgment now confronting us is 


as shocking and paradoxical as any rendered upon our national 
history. How paradoxical this example of revisionism is, how 
greatly it contradicts the common or common-sense-conception 
of this historic episode, may be further gathered from the follow- 
ing contemporary estimate of the Illinois campaign of 1858 by a 
man who had labored in Douglas's camp: "It was no ordinary 
contest, in which political opponents skirmished for the amuse- 
ment of an indifferent audience, but it was a great uprising of 
the people, in which the masses were politically, and to a 
considerable extent socially, divided and arrayed against each 
other. In fact, it was a fierce and angry struggle, approximating 
the character of a revolution." 6 That it is also shocking is evident 
the moment one remembers the immense importance of these de- 
bates in furthering the breakup of national parties and drawing 
the nation toward the abyss of civil war. For if the issue between 
Lincoln and Douglas was a mere talking point, if Douglas had 
as good a solution to the problem of slavery in the territories as 
Lincoln had, then what justification did Lincoln have to oppose 
Douglas and to bring on such an angry and deep-seated struggle? 
The inference is well-nigh inescapable that Lincoln opposed 
Douglas only to further his own ambitions, that he deliberately 
accepted the chance of civil war (which Douglas repeatedly ac- 
cused him of inviting) by his house divided doctrine and by his 
"prediction" that the nation was faced with the awful choice of 
becoming all slave or all free. If Lincoln forced an illusory alter- 
native upon the country, he must be accused of bringing on the 
very crisis he predicted, with the end in view not the future free- 
dom of the nation's soil (which Randall insists that Douglas had 
already guaranteed) but the political future of A. Lincoln. We 
may even better appreciate the devastating character of the moral 
judgment herein implied if we ask: What would have happened 
had Lincoln accepted Greeley's advice and the Illinois Republi- 
cans had supported, or at least not opposed, Douglas's return to 
the Senate? The answers to such "iffy" questions are at best 
problematical, but we may venture the following with as much 
confidence as Randall advances the hypothesis that popular sov- 
ereignty would of itself have kept slavery out of the territories. 7 
Douglas, who had so recently led the Republicans in Congress 
to victory over the Buchanan forces upon the issue of a fraudulent 
slave constitution for Kansas, would not have moved away from 
them had Lincoln not forced him to do so. Thus his position 


vis-&-vis the Danites, or administration Democrats, would have 
been stronger throughout the North. This strength he might then 
have used, either to dictate terms of reconciliation within his own 
party, or to move over to the Republicans completely. Or, if 
Douglas had headed a new free-soil party (it might have been 
called Democratic-Republican, reviving the original simon-pure 
Jeffersonian nomenclature), including Douglas Democrats as well 
as all the principal ingredients of the combination that supported 
Lincoln in 1860 (exclusive of lunatic-fringe abolitionists and 
Know-Nothings), he might have led a party with a far broader 
base than Lincoln achieved in the next presidential campaign. 
It should be remembered that, although Lincoln would have been 
elected in 1860 even if all the votes actually cast for other candi- 
dates had been combined in favor of any one of them, he received 
only a fraction under 40 per cent of the popular vote in that 
year. At the same time Douglas received nearly 30 per cent of 
the popular vote in the country. Of the combined Lincoln- 
Douglas vote in the free states, Lincoln received 60 per cent 
and Douglas 40 per cent, and this tells why Lincoln's victory 
was so decisive in the electoral college. Yet, although the split 
in the Democratic vote did not directly cause Lincoln's election, 
indirectly it must have played a tremendous, if immeasurable, 
role. For the split made the election of Douglas (whose strength 
in 1860 was far more diffused throughout the country than that of 
any other candidate) by the electoral college a virtual impos- 
sibility. This fact, moreover, was well known throughout the 
campaign. Had Americans chosen their President by direct popu- 
lar vote in 1860, it is far from improbable that, notwithstanding 
the damaging campaign of 1858, Douglas might have polled many 
more votes than Lincoln. 

Because of the peculiarities of the electoral system, the only 
real alternative to Lincoln's election by the electoral college was 
an election in the House or, still more probably, in the Senate. 
Had Douglas carried New York or Pennsylvania, for example, in 
both of which there were fusion tickets in the field against Lincoln 
in 1860, then the electoral college might very likely have failed 
to produce a majority. The South might have prevented the elec- 
tion of any candidate in the House, where voting would have 
gone by states, and under the Twelfth Amendment the President 
inaugurated in 1861 might have been the man chosen by the 
Senate to be Vice-president The cry of "Lincoln or Lane" un- 


doubtedly sent many Douglas men into Lincoln's camp in 1860. 
This suggests the extreme probability that a coalition of Douglas 
Democrats and Greeley-Seward Republicans in 1860 might have 
produced a far greater electoral triumph for the free-soil move- 
ment in that year, even if the candidate had been Seward and 
not Douglas. 

Had the free-soil candidate of 1860 enjoyed the vastly greater 
popular plurality that an addition of the Lincoln and Douglas 
vote suggests, it would have taken far greater moral courage for 
the South to have seceded. That a large minority had voted 
against Lincoln in the free states helped to convince opinion in 
the South that the North would never coerce them to remain 
in the Union. The South had long been warned by Calhoun that 
it ought not remain in a union in which the constitutional minority 
should be defenseless against the power of a constitutional major- 
ity. In the eyes of many, however, that the power of the constitu- 
tional majority should be exercised by an actual minority was 
not merely intolerable but contemptible. 

In contemplating a possible alliance of Douglas with the 
Republicans we must keep in mind that, prior to the Illinois 
campaign of 1858, this party was by no means fixed in the mold 
which, however tenuously, Lincoln cast upon it as a result of that 
campaign. The radicalism of the house divided speech, so much 
deplored by Randall, was so little ingrained in the rank and file 
that even in the nominating convention of 1860 an amendment 
to affirm the principles of the Declaration of Independence as part 
of the party platform was voted down. A threatened revolt caused 
it to be included later, but without general enthusiasm and "with- 
out any application in terms of racial equality." 8 Any analysis of 
Lincoln's campaigns (in 1858 or 1860) makes it clear that, by 
opposing Douglas and thereby losing to the Republicans the 
free-soil Democrats whom Douglas could have carried into a 
Republican ( or coalition ) camp, Lincoln was forced to appeal to 
abolitionist elements which his party might otherwise have dis- 
pensed with. Having staked out a position in the house divided 
speech to which abolitionists could rally, Lincoln characteristically 
drew back from it in order to keep as much as possible of the 
anti-abolitionist free-soil opinion marshaled behind him. It was, 
however, the careful specification of Republican orthodoxy in the 
house divided speech, breaking up the anti-Lecompton coalition 
of the winter and spring of 1857-58, which read Douglas and his 


dyed-in-the-wool followers out of the free-soil party 9 and thus 
made it imperative that the Republicans recruit their ranks from 
abolitionists, however much these remained a minority in the 
party as a whole. Further, once Lincoln staked out a radical 
claim, whether he meant to be radical himself or not, it was 
inevitable that Douglas would pursue the obvious strategy of 
identifying Lincoln and his party with its most radical element. 
This was no more than Lincoln himself was doing when he insisted 
throughout the campaign that Douglas's position of alleged in- 
difference to slavery was the most effective and dangerous pro- 
slavery policy possible. 

Lincoln was responsible then not only for a definite shift in 
Republican oratory toward the inclusion of abolitionist slogans 
(Lincoln's house divided speech was in June 1858; Seward's 
"irrepressible conflict" came the following October; and Seward 
was one of those reported to have considered a coalition with 
Douglas!) but for assuring that his party would be advertised 
and identified throughout the country, above all in the South, as 
the abolition party. Thus, by furthering the split in the Demo- 
cratic party, as we have suggested, Lincoln did more than merely 
promote the election of a minority Republican president in 1860. 
By creating the chasm between Douglas Democrats and Republi- 
cans he caused to be fastened upon the Republicans a character 
that would, to the existing mind and temper of the South, be 
indistinguishable from abolitionism, thus increasing beyond meas- 
ure the likelihood of secession when such a party should carry a 
national election. If a Democrat had been elected in 1860, whether 
Douglas or another, it is improbable in the extreme that secession 
would have followed. But if Douglas had effected a coalition 
with the Republicans, and if the combination which carried the 
fight against Buchanan Democracy over the Lecompton fraud in 
Kansas and kept the soil there free under the banner of popular 
sovereignty had carried the presidency in 1860, it is equally 
difficult to imagine secession. For such a coalition would have 
possessed other advantages than the moral authority of a far 
greater weight at the polls, as suggested above. If the campaign 
of 1858 in Illinois had seen a united Douglas Democracy-Republi- 
can free-soil movement beating down the miserable fraud of 
Lecompton-Buchanan Democracy, there would have been no 
necessity to flaunt before the South either the Freeport Doctrine 
of Douglas or the abolitionism of the Republicans. It was by 


making both Douglas Democracy and Republicanism bitterly 
unacceptable to the South that Lincoln, above all others, made 
the Civil War the "irrepressible conflict" it became. 

It is the great revisionist thesis that the Civil War was a "need- 
less war," that it was a "whipped-up crisis," not the result of 
"fundamental motives," but of "war-making agitation." 10 If Lin- 
coln was not a fanatic or agitator in the sense in which Randall 
uses those terms, it is indubitable that he, more than any man, 
helped produce the situation in which fanaticism and agitation 
could do their deadly work. To say that Lincoln did so, not for a 
substantial good that might not otherwise have been attained, but 
only to keep alive a "talking point," a point that might and did 
"talk" the country into fratricidal war, is to give him a character 
that, in the profundity of its immorality, is beyond treason. A 
Benedict Arnold sells out for gold, but while he may destroy 
his country he degrades only himself. But a man who makes 
enemies and aliens of friends and fellow citizens corrupts the 
soul of the body politic. To create strife where there was none, 
or where there need have been none, as a means to one's own 
fame, is to make honor the reward not of virtue or public benefit 
but of baseness and mischief-making. If the order of talents of 
the man who does this is high, so much the more reprehensible 
is his action. 

If this conclusion concerning Lincoln appears unbearably harsh, 
we must protest that we have done no more than draw inferences 
from premises firmly fixed in the pages of revisionist historiog- 
raphy. We can see no way of questioning the conclusion but by 
questioning the premises. Was there no substantial difference be- 
tween Lincoln's policy and Douglas's at the time of the debates? 
Would Douglas's policy have produced freedom as surely as 
Lincoln's, without the additional hazard of letting slip the dogs of 
fanaticism and the dogs of war? In short, how successfully does 
Randall's "valid" historiography contradict the illusion of a cen- 
tury, that the clash of Lincoln and Douglas was a great contest 
for the highest stakes and that these stakes were not the personal 
stakes of the principals but the future of free government not 
only for the people of the United States but, by reason of their 
example, for the world? 

Chapter II 

1858: Lincoln versus Douglas. 
The Alternatives 

IN A most remarkable obiter dictum, Randall observes that "one 
of the most colossal misconceptions is the theory that funda- 
mental motives produce war. The glaring and obvious fact is the 
artificiality of war-making agitation." 1 Unfortunately Randall never 
explains to us the ground for his distinction between fundamental 
and non-fundamental (or "artificial") motives. He regards it as 
"obvious." But every historian knows that what is obvious to one 
generation may not be at all obvious to the next; that the self- 
evident truths of Jefferson may become self-evident lies to Cal- 
houn. In like manner, Randall contemplates the two practical 
questions upon which the North-South controversy focused in the 
immediate pre-Civil War period: "What should be done about 
an almost non-existent slave population in the West, or about a 
small trickle of runaway bondsmen, was magnified into an issue 
altogether out of scale with its importance." 2 But again, we ask, 
important to whom? We agree that judgment upon such issues 
as those that divided Lincoln and Douglas and the North and 
the South is of the essence of the historian's function. But if we 
consider revisionism's primary aim, of historical "restoration" an 
aim we accept unreservedly the attempt first to see the past as 
it appeared in the past and not only in the light of the opinions 
of a later and different age, it is strange that Randall should so 
beg the question of why Lincoln, Douglas, and their contemporar- 
ies treated as real, fundamental, and important the differences 
he refers to as illusory, artificial, and slight For the most super- 
ficial reading of the debates shows that the debaters themselves 


regarded their differences as radical and profound. Randall him- 
self confesses wonderingly that "the intensity of the discussion 
baffled description." 3 

Among the Lilliputians, the greatest of all human differences 
was conceived to be the difference between those who opened 
their eggs at the big end and those who opened their eggs at 
the little end. Randall would no doubt feel confirmed in his opin- 
ion of war by the conflict between Lilliput and Blefuscu. Yet, 
however justified he might be, even in this case one would, we 
should think, want to hear how the issues might be stated by, or 
in behalf of, a Big-Endian and a Little-Endian. Many a throat 
has been cut for theological differences no more readily intelligi- 
ble to the bystander than those satirized by Swift in the voyage 
to Lilliput. But who will boldly say that theological differences 
may not be fundamental? 

Randall, in his zeal to do what he thinks is justice to Douglas, 
has written that "any attempt to add luster to Lincoln's fame 
by belittling Douglas or by exaggerating the differences between 
the two men would be a perversion of history/' 4 Now, to exag- 
gerate, except perhaps as a rhetorical device, is always a perver- 
sion of history because, by definition, exaggeration is a form of 
misrepresentation. And there can be no merit, of course, in 
contributing to the undeserved reputation of any man. Whatever 
fame may justly belong to Lincoln is cheapened by its admixture 
with undeserved fame, and the attempt decried by Randall would 
be foolish as well as dishonest. If exaggerating differences is 
wrong, so is it wrong to minimize them. And if we are to regard 
reputations, it may be remarked that Douglas's no less than 
Lincoln's suffers by trivializing the issues between them, for 
Douglas did not regard the difference between himself and 
Lincoln, which Randall treats as a mere matter of method in 
keeping slavery out of the territories, as a small one. For Douglas, 
as for Lincoln, it was immensely important that the form of the 
government of the territories accord with what he believed to be 
the true spirit of free political institutions. The principle of popu- 
lar sovereignty, as he interpreted it, was to Douglas the key to 
political freedom, both in the United States and in the world. 
The American Revolution, he observed (echoing Webster), had 
been fought over a preamble the preamble to the Stamp Act 
asserting the right of Parliament to bind the colonies in all cases 
whatsoever. The tax on tea was itself of no consequence, but the 


concession of principle involved in paying it was of transcendent 
importance. According to Douglas, it was the violation of the 
right of self-government which was the cause of the revolt of 
the thirteen colonies. Lincoln's principle, he maintained, that 
Congress might intervene to prevent the spread of slavery, meant 
that it might legislate the domestic institutions of territories and 
thereby determine the character of future states. The power so 
to do, Douglas maintained, rightfully belonged only to the in- 
habitants of those communities, and for anyone else to exercise 
this power would be of a piece with the attempt of the British 
King and Parliament to do for the colonists those things, whether 
good or bad, which the colonists believed might rightfully be 
done only by their own legislatures. 

The principle of popular sovereignty meant the principle 
whereby each distinct political community, whether state or 
territory, determined for itself the institutions by which its daily 
life was lived, subject only to those general rules, embodied in 
the Constitution, which guaranteed to each its equal right to pur- 
sue its own way. Douglas, no less than Lincoln, saw in the 
American experiment the trial of the cause of political freedom 
for all humanity. The unity in diversity which the democratic 
federal Republic embodied was for him, no less than for his 
opponent, the world's best hope. Yet Lincoln and Douglas under- 
stood the nature of that unity, and the nature of that diversity, 
in radically different terms. On the fact of their antagonism and 
on its importance they were in agreement with each other and 
in disagreement with Professor Randall. 

Lincoln held that free government was, in principle, incom- 
patible with chattel slavery^ The sheet anchor of American 
republicanism, he held, was that no man was good enough to 
govern another without that other's consent. There was no princi- 
ple, Lincoln often argued, that might justify the enslavement of 
Negroes that might not also, with equal force, be used to enslave 
white men. Every concession made to Negro slavery weakened 
by so much the attachment of white men to the charter of their 
own freedom, and by so much prepared them to be subjects of 
the first cunning tyrant who should arise among them. Lincoln 
frequently compared slavery to cancer. It is not possible always 
to excise the malignancy without causing the patient to bleed 
to death, but neither is it possible for it to spread without causing 


death. The primary aim in both cases is to arrest the growth or 
spread of the element which is alien and hostile to the life 
principle, whether of the natural body or of the body politic. 

Douglas's doctrine of popular sovereignty, with its self-pro- 
claimed neutrality toward whether slavery was voted up or voted 
down, was a sheer absurdity on its face, according to Lincoln. 
How could anyone, he asked, at one and the same time advocate 
self-government and be indifferent to the denial of self-govern- 
ment? Anyone sincerely desirous of self-governmentwhich popu- 
lar sovereignty allegedly meant could not, Lincoln held, be 
indifferent to slavery. The relation of master and slave was a total 
violation of self-government; to justify despotism was of necessity 
to condemn self-government, and to justify self-government was 
of necessity to condemn despotism. A popular sovereignty which 
could, even in theory, issue in the despotic rule of one man by 
another was a living lie, said Lincoln, and to embalm such a lie 
in the heart of a great act of national legislation an act which 
announced to the world the principle by which the American 
republic incorporated vast acquisitions into its empire would 
be a calamity for human freedom. For whatever the immediate 
practical effects of the Kansas-Nebraska Act, either in introducing 
or excluding slavery from the remaining Louisiana territory, its 
ultimate effects would have been no less disastrous to Lincoln 
than a change in the First Commandment from the singular deity 
to a plural would have been to a pious Jew or Christian. 

As Lincoln held that no man was good enough to govern an- 
other without that others consent, so Douglas held that no 
community of free men or group of such communities was good 
enough to dictate the domestic institutions of another community 
of free men. Lincoln, while holding that slavery in the abstract 
was unjust, conceded that it might be a necessary evil in some 
circumstances. But who should determine when such a necessity 
existed? Those who went out to populate the plains of Kansas, 
like those who had gone earlier to California, were not to be 
supposed inferior in wisdom or virtue to their less adventurous 
and hardy kinsmen whom they had left behind in the older states. 
Yet these pioneers, like their colonial forebears vis-a-vis the Par- 
liament at Westminster, were not represented in Congress. If 
Congress could not legislate on slavery in the states, which were 
represented in Congress, why should it legislate on slavery in 


the territories, which were not represented in it? As for any man 
not being good enough to govern another, Douglas maintained: 

The civilized world have always held, that when any race of 
men have shown themselves so degraded, by ignorance, su- 
perstitution, cruelty, and barbarism, as to be utterly incapable 
of governing themselves, they must, in the nature of things, 
be governed by others, by such laws as are deemed applica- 
ble to their condition. 

That Douglas was not simply hearkening back to the antiquated 
distinction between "Greeks and barbarians" is shown by the 
language of that advanced liberal, John Stuart Mill, in his essay 
On Liberty, published first in the year 1859: 

Despotism is a legitimate mode of government in dealing 
with barbarians . . . Liberty, as a principle, has no applica- 
tion to any state of things anterior to the time when mankind 
have become capable of being improved by free and equal 

That the Negroes of America, by and large, were not "capable 
of being improved by free and equal discussion" was common 
ground to all but an infinitesimal minority in 1858. Lincoln, as 
we shall see, repeatedly declared himself against doing anything 
to "bring about the political and social equality of the white and 
black races." Douglas just as often hurled the allegation of utter 
inconsistency, of political trimming, against Lincoln on this score. 
If the Negroes were admittedly not to be our equals, then they 
must be our inferiors and governed by us, Douglas argued. 
Humanity and Christianity enjoin that the Negro be accorded 
every right, privilege, and immunity consistent with the safety 
and welfare of society. The practical question is: What are those 
rights? This question, Douglas averred, must be answered by each 
state and territory for itself. 

Illinois had decided that the Negro should be neither a slave 
nor a citizen; other states had decreed slavery; still others had 
decided that Negroes might vote. Of the latter, some decreed 
special qualifications for Negro voters in addition to those re- 
quired of white men, while others did not draw any such invidi- 
ous distinction. Douglas's central practical contention came to 
this: that as Negro rights had, by the nature of the case, to be 
decided by white men, the white men competent to degide 


wgce. those closest to the Negroes whose rights were to be decided. 
Conditions in Maine differed widely from those in Mississippi. 
Would anyone contend that the laws proper for the few free 
Negroes of New England were proper for the masses of still 
primitive Africans of the Deep South? Or vice versa? If Congress 
might leave it to the territorial legislatures to determine the laws 
governing the relation of husband and wife, parent and child, 
to establish entire civil and criminal codes, why might it not 
also leave it to them to decide concerning master and servant? 
For Douglas, the essence of free government lay in the power 
of decision by free men on issues of vital importance to them- 
selves. To deprive communities of free men of their power of 
decision over grave questions simply because they were grave was 
to strike at the main ground of justification of both federalism 
and democracy. He once said that the principle of the Kansas- 
Nebraska Act originated when God made man and placed good 
and evil before him, allowing him to choose for himself. As man's 
humanity lay in his power so to choose, so also did political 
freedom, Whether the external force was an absolute monarch, a 
parliament, or the Congress of the United States did not alter 
the case. The argument for self-government rested upon the 
competence of the people to decide all questions, including those 
of right and wrong, or there was no valid argument for self- 
government. Like Lord Randolph Churchill, Douglas's motto was 
"Trust the people. M tIncoln and the Black Republican party 
treated the Declaration of Independence as if it insisted upon a 
universal leveling of the conditions of men everywhere, instead of. 
raising the heads of free men above the common level, in virtue 
of their uncommon virtue and sacrifices. Their interpretation was 
a slander upon the Fathers, who would have been hypocrites 
had they meant to declare slavery against natural and divine 
law and then continued one and all to represent slaveholding 
constituencies and, most of them, to hold slaves themselves. 
Douglas's interpretation of the famous proposition was, in sub- 
stance, that it meant "equality for equals only," and he believed 
that Lincoln's interpretation, by giving equality to unequals, was 
subversive of aU order and justice. If Negroes might not justly be 
enslaved where their inferior natures or the interests of society 
required, they might not justly be denied any other equal right 
The Black Republican credo, if adopted, would set in motion 
forces which could not stop short of full political and social 


equality, of miscegenation and mongrelization, such as had come 
to pass in Central and South America, where the natives had 
shown themselves utterly incapable of the self-government that 
flourished in the former British colonies. 

To all this Lincoln replied that Douglas had drawn a false issue. 
Lincoln conceded that there was a physical difference between 
the white and black races which would probably forever forbid 
their living together upon a plane of equality. It was the ancient 
faith of the Fathers that all men are created equal. Yet that 
faith did not categorically forbid the denial of any land of equality 
to Negroes any more than it immediately placed all white men 
upon a plane of complete equality. But Negroes were equal to 
white men in certain inalienable rights, and in virtue of those 
inalienable rights it was wrong to deny any man the right to put 
into his mouth the bread that his own hand had earned. Douglas's 
bogey-the slaveocrats' bogey-that the alternative to slavery was 
full political and social equality, Lincoln called a horse-chestnut 
argument, "a specious and fantastic arrangement of words, by 
which a man can prove a horse-chestnut to be a chestnut horse." 
Lincoln said it did not follow that if he did not want a Negro 
woman as a slave he must want her as a wife; he could just 
leave her alone. If it was true that less had been given to the 
Negro, the Negro was not for that reason less entitled to keep 
the portion that was his. Lincoln's ancient faith taught him, he 
said, that the Negro was a man and entitled to justice, but slavery 
was a total abrogation of justice. Although it might in some cir- 
cumstances be a necessary evil, it was an evil all the same. To call 
it otherwise would be to pervert all truth, to poison the wells 
of public morality at their source in that public opinion which 
is the foundation of all political action in a free society. 

But, Lincoln insisted, he did not advocate abolition or any 
interference with slavery where it already existed. He conceded 
fully that part of Douglas's argument which placed the primary 
responsibility for determining the master-servant relation with 
those who Uved with it. Living in a free state, he would not 
chide his southern brethren for their tardiness in adopting 
schemes of gradual emancipation, much as he was in favor of 
such action. But although as a citizen of Illinois he had neither 
the responsibility nor the right to act with respect to slavery in 
the slave states, this did not forbid him to express his opinion 
and advocate legislation with respect to virgin territories, the 


common possession of the Union, where no master-servant prob- 
lem yet existed. There the question was not what laws were best 
suited for dealing with the Negro but should slavery and its 
concomitant evils be permitted to exist there at all? If the United 
States had somehow suddenly found itself possessed of a land 
with a large Negro population, such as Cuba, the question would 
then have been: What laws are best for these Negroes? But the 
vast virgin lands of Nebraska, like the lands acquired from 
Mexico, to which Lincoln had voted "forty times" to apply the 
Wilmot Proviso, had virtually no Negroes in them. To keep them 
out, and with them the train of problems their introduction would 
bring, was something no rational person devoted to civil liberty 
could, according to Lincoln, fail to desire. If Douglas really feared 
miscegenation, let him join the Republicans in restricting slavery, 
for slavery was precisely the cause of at least nine tenths of all 
miscegenation in this country. Free Negro girls were not likely 
to become the mothers of mulattoes without their own consent, 
at least. 

When Douglas professed indifference as to whether slavery was 
voted up or voted down, he meant that not humanity or Christi- 
anity, or even the safety of society, but material self-interest was 
to determine Negro rights. John Stuart Mill, while admitting that 
despotism was a legitimate mode of government for barbarians, 
added, "provided the end be their improvement, and the means 
justified by actually effecting that end." Said Douglas, however: 

... we ought to extend to the negro race, and to all other 
dependent races, all the rights, all the privileges, and all 
the immunities which they can exercise consistently with the 
safety of society. Humanity requires that we should give them 
all these privileges; Christianity commands that we should 
extend those privileges to them. The question then arises, 
What are those privileges, and what is the nature and extent 
of them? My answer is that that is a question which each 
State must answer for itself. We in Illinois have decided 
it for ourselves. We tried slavery, kept it up for twelve years, 
and finding it was not profitable, we abolished it for that 
reason, and became a Free State. 

Or, on another occasion: 

Whenever a territory has a climate, soil, and productions 
making it the interest of the inhabitants to encourage slave 


property, they will pass a slave code and give it encourage- 
ment. Whenever the climate, soil, and productions preclude 
the possibility of slavery being profitable, they will not permit 
it. You come right back to the principle of dollar and cents. 

Such statements, according to Lincoln, showed that Douglas 
"has no very vivid impression that the negro is a human; and 
consequently has no idea that there can be any moral question 
in legislating about him! In his view, the question of whether 
a new country shall be slave or free, is a matter of as utter 
indifference, as it is whether his neighbor shall plant his farm 
with tobacco, or stock it with horned cattle." Popular sovereignty, 
so called, was thus wrong, "wrong in its direct effect, letting 
slavery into Kansas and Nebraska, and wrong in its prospective 
principle, allowing it to spread to every other part of the wide 
world, where men can be found inclined to take it." This policy, 
Lincoln said, first in 1854 an d ever a ft er - 

I can not but hate. I hate it because of the monstrous injustice 
of slavery itself. I hate it because it deprives our republican 
example of its just influence in the worldenables the ene- 
mies of free institutions, with plausibility, to taunt us as 
hypocrites causes the real friends of freedom to doubt our 
sincerity, and especially because it forces so many really good 
men amongst ourselves into an open war with the very 
fundamental principles of civil liberty criticizing the Dec- 
laration of Independence, and insisting there is no right 
principle of action but self-interest. 

But did not Lincoln see by the summer of 1858 what virtually 
the whole country saw, that Kansas would never become a slave 
state and that it was only a matter of time until it became a 
free state under popular sovereignty? And that there was no place 
in the remaining Louisiana territory so favorable to slavery as 
Kansas? Was his doctrinal moral opposition to Douglas worth 
continuing? Had not Washington himself said that slavery could 
in fact be abolished only by making it unprofitable? Had not 
Washington sought to link the valleys of the Potomac and the 
Ohio with roads and canals so that the spread of commerce and 
industry into Virginia and the upper South would render the 
slave labor system unprofitable? 5 And was not Douglas as much 
a practical idealist as Washington by trying to open the West 


as rapidly as possible and thereby develop a continental railroad 
system? Was not Douglas's policy far more effective in its anti- 
slavery bearing than any merely doctrinal moral crusade? 

It seems incontestable that, while both men could not have 
been equally right in the positions they took in 1858, neither held 
his position out of mere expediency, although we may be sure 
that each was convinced of the expediency of the position he 
took. Both men approached the climax of political careers extend- 
ing over a quarter of a century. Though Douglas's contemporary 
success and fame greatly exceeded Lincoln's, the latter's political 
apprenticeship had been thorough; and his 1838 speech "On the 
Perpetuation of Our Political Institutions" showed a conscious 
dedication of his life to preparation for just such a moment as 
this. Nor did the policy of either man reflect light or transient 
causes; rather it was the result of applying principles of whose 
validity each was deeply convinced and which alone seemed to 
illuminate the path of the American people as they struggled 
to find their way through the darkest enigma ever to perplex 
a democratic nation. 

Although Douglas was the far better known man in 1858 in- 
deed, it is doubtful that any party chieftain and statesman who 
has not occupied the presidential chair has enjoyed such fame 
and power in his own lifetime, unless it be Henry Clay or Robert 
A. Taft his career prior to the debates is today relatively un- 
known. We shall try to restore the proportions of 1858 by first 
presenting an account of the highlights of Douglas's political life 
and thought, from his entry upon the national scene in 1843 until 
his great duel with Lincoln. In this account we shall be as 
sympathetic as possible, seeking the highest ground from which 
to survey Douglas's embattled career. For we wish, in such an 
account, to see the best justification of Douglas's course in 1858 
that a devoted follower or, rather, that Douglas himself may have 
seen as he surveyed his record and came to grips with his supreme 

Part II 


Chapter III 

THE charge most damaging to Douglas's reputation through the 
years, given the widest currency among historians by James Ford 
Rhodes, was that he thought moral considerations had no place 
in politics. In recent years this has been repeated and elaborated 
by Allan Nevins. 1 Yet it is hardly an exaggeration to say that 
Douglas has suffered more from his defenders than from his de- 
tractors. George Fort Milton, his most violent contemporary 
partisan, calls him a "realist in an emotional age" who "sought 
to buttress his policies of economic intelligence" with "dialectics" 
because "he lived in an age when speech in any other vocabulary 
would not have been comprehended." This suggests that Douglas 
was a kind of commissar dealing with a backward proletariat. 
Yet there is no evidence that Douglas himself would have com- 
prehended his own policies in any other idiom than the one he 
used, or that such a distinction as that between "economic 
intelligence" and "dialectics" existed in his mind. In his devotion 
to what he understood to be the mission of free republican 
institutions Douglas was as emotional as any man who lived in 
his age. 

Douglas entered politics as a follower of Andrew Jackson. The 
image of Old Hickory was the star to which he hitched his wagon 
and to which he ever remained loyal. Like his hero, he loved and 
hated well. He loved the Union and was a fierce and belligerent 
nationalist He joined hands with Jackson's old enemy, Henry 
Clay, to drive through the compromise measures of 1850 (even 
as Clay had assisted Jackson in the nullification crisis of 1832), 
because he believed the compromise would preserve and 


strengthen the Union. But, as he said in 1860, when he went 
into the heart of the secessionist country, convinced that the 
election of Lincoln was impending, he would hang higher than 
Haman (echoing Jackson's words a quarter century before) any 
man who resisted by force the execution of any provision of the 
Constitution. In this, his finest hour, Douglas's patriotism burned 
as intensely as did that of Washington or Lincoln. 

Douglas was, moreover, an enemy of prejudice ethnic, reli- 
gious, or sectional. The heir of Jackson was devoted to enlarging 
the basis of participation in American democracy. But how to 
enlarge the basis of democracy in the 1850'$ was a difficult 
question, involving to a considerable degree choosing between 
the rights of Negroes and the rights of white immigrants. In 
contrasting his record with Lincoln's concerning the Negro, we 
must also contrast their records concerning the Know-Nothings, 
the "Native Americans'* who sought to make second-class citizens 
of the foreign-born, particularly those of non-Anglo-Saxon stock. 
While Lincoln kept almost silent about them in public, expressing 
his strong hostility only privately, Douglas attacked the Know- 
Nothings openly, repeatedly, and vehemently. Moreover, it 
should be realized that, in speaking ill of Negroes as he did, 
Douglas only took one horn of a profound dilemma. That dilemma 
was whether to condemn the moral code of white men in the 
slave states who were his friends, relatives, and fellow citizens or, 
by speaking tolerantly of the right of the South to its "peculiar 
institution," to concede the only premise upon which such a right 
seemed justified; namely, the inferiority of the black race. The 
concession to pro-slavery opinion which Douglas made the 
minimum concession needed to maintain the Democratic party 
as a national party and to preserve popular government in a 
nation increasingly rent by a deep moral cleavage may thus have 
appeared to him as the choice of a lesser evil. That Douglas did, 
in the last analysis, feel more in common with pro-slavery opinion 
than with abolitionism (which Lincoln also opposed) does not 
mean that he accepted it. Douglas, like Lincoln, had deep per- 
sonal as well as party ties with the South. The intolerance of 
the abolitionists seemed to him the more provocative as well as 
the more aggressive of the two extremes, and his passionate 
concern with the constitutional rights of the South led him to 
pour scorn upon the racial egalitarianism of its detractors. 


Allan Nevins calls Douglas a man of "dim moral perceptions" 
who failed to see that "the irresistible tidal forces of history are 
moral forces." 2 According to Nevins, the forces of history, the 
movements of world opinion in the nineteenth century were ir- 
resistibly away from irresponsible autocracies and toward respon- 
sible democracies; away from slavery, in its many world-wide 
forms, toward personal freedom. Yet Nevins fails to explain how 
a statesman standing at the juncture of conflicting currents can 
infallibly know which way the tide of history is flowing. Lincoln 
at Gettysburg called the Civil War a test and meant thereby 
a genuine crisis whose event was doubtful. Lincoln certainly saw 
no predetermined direction of history. Moreover, Nevins does not 
tell us why swimming with the tide of historyassuming it has 
one is morally superior to opposing it. May not a man choose 
nobly to oppose the "tide" of events? Has not many a good cause 
been saved by a stand, against all odds, by one who refused 
to count the odds? In the somewhat overblown peroration of a 
speech in 1839, Lincoln expressed this old-fashioned thought as 

If I ever feel the soul within me elevate and expand to those 
dimensions not wholly unworthy of its Almighty Architect, 
it is when I contemplate the cause of my country, deserted 
by all the world beside, and I standing boldly and alone and 
hurling defiance at her victorious oppressors. Here without 
contemplating consequences, before High Heaven, and in the 
face of the world, I swear eternal fidelity to the just cause, as 
I deem it, of the land of my life, my liberty, and my love . . . 
Let none falter, who thinks he is right, and we may succeed. 
But if, after all, we shall fail, be it so. We shall still have the 
proud consolation of saying to our consciences, and to the 
departed shade of our country's freedom, that the cause 
approved of our judgment, and adored of our hearts, in disas- 
ter, in torture, in death, we never faltered in defending. 3 

When Douglas undertook to repeal the Missouri Compromise 
in 1854, he is reported to have said that he knew it would raise a 
"hell of a storm." But he had determined upon a course which 
he believed to be right and in the long-run interests of all he 
held dear. He too felt that a crisis had been reached and must be 
passed, that the rising tide of abolitionism was threatening to 
wrench American politics from its normal channels, within which 


national majorities and minorities could peacefully divide, and 
substitute a sectional issue upon which compromise would not be 
possible. When that was accomplished, the Union he loved would 
perish; and no more than Webster or Lincoln did he wish to see 
that day. If Douglas's doctrine of popular sovereignty, of allowing 
local majorities everywhere to decide the slavery question, had 
been accepted by the main body of northern opinion as an accept- 
able principle for dealing with the "vexed question," Douglas 
would have proved the master of the irresistible tidal force he 
roused against himself in 1854. And, in fact, only Lincoln's 
opposition in 1858 hurled Douglas down as he stood near, very 
near, the pinnacle of success. 

Douglas was not blind to the moral implications of the slavery 
question. If he was constrained to profess indifference as to 
whether it was voted up or down, this was a logical implication 
of his commitment to popular sovereignty, according to which 
slavery ought to be dealt with at the local level. What his policy 
of "Don't care" really meant was that he believed he ought not to 
express an official opinion on a subject which he did not believe 
ought to come within the scope of his official responsibility. Taking 
the stand that the Constitution did not give Congress any rightful 
power over slavery except the power, coupled with the duty, 
to provide for the rendition of fugitives Douglas felt it was the 
duty of every member of Congress, by a kind of self-denying 
ordinance, to abstain from expressing views on the substantive 
issues raised by slavery, issues belonging by right to the state 
and territorial governments alone. As far as the federal govern- 
ment was concerned, Douglas wished to treat slavery as a juris- 
dictional question, and he knew that if he permitted himself to 
express opinions on the merits of slavery he would defeat his own 
purpose, which was to deny jurisdiction over it to the national 
legislature. For Douglas was convinced that the Union would 
not survive differences of opinion on slavery in that forum. To 
repeat: Douglas did not wish to speak on the merits of the slavery 
question because he did not wish Congress to become the forum 
for policies he believed could properly and effectively be framed 
only at the local level, state or territorial. In 1858, after the 
Lecompton battle royal, but one public word from Douglas on 
the immorality of slavery one word merely to the effect that 
popular sovereignty, instead of "not caring" whether slavery was 


voted up or down, was in fact the best constitutional instrument 
for giving effect to the overwhelming northern free-soil condem- 
nation of slavery in the territoriesand Douglas could have 
destroyed Lincoln's whole claim to leadership and made himself 
the unquestioned free-soil leader in the Northwest. Lincoln well 
knew this when, in his house divided speech, he said: 

Now, as ever I wish not to misrepresent Judge Douglas's 
position, question his motives, or do aught that can be per- 
sonally offensive to him. 

Whenever, if ever, he and we can come together on princi- 
ple, so that our great cause may have assistance from his 
great ability, I hope to have interposed no adventitious 

Nevins, in his indictment of Douglas, says that Douglas's biog- 
raphers "have found in all his speeches and letters only one or 
two intimating a dislike of slavery. A hundred can be found which 
show that, as he once said, he did not care whether it be voted 
up or down." In fact, Douglas used the famous "Don't care" phrase 
in one or another form a number of times, although not nearly as 
often as its incessant repetition by Lincoln and other Republicans 
would make one think. And while Nevins gives several examples 
of Douglas's alleged moral obliquity in relation to slavery, he gives 
none of the "one or two" anti-slavery expressions. In 1860 the 
Illinois Republican State Central Committee compiled a pam- 
phlet entitled The Political Record of Stephen A. Douglas on 
the Slavery Question. In it there are four double-column pages, 
of the smallest-size type, which give his supposed anti-slavery 
record, and eleven giving his supposed pro-slavery record. Even 
this campaign document by the Republicans places Douglas more 
on the side of the angels than Professor Nevins does! The charge 
of inconsistency, however, leveled against Douglas in 1860 by 
the Republican party may reveal the ground of Douglas's best 
justification. For consistency, in any narrow sense, is seldom if 
ever the path of wise statesmanship. We may anticipate Douglas's 
justification in Winston Churchill's remarks about consistency in 
politics, remarks specifically applied to Burke, who had once 
attacked the British Court and defended the American Revolu- 
tion, then later had defended the French monarchy and attacked 
the French Revolution: 


... a Statesman in contact with the moving current of events 
and anxious to keep the ship on an even keel and steer a 
steady course may lean all his weight now on one side and 
now on the other. His arguments in each case when con- 
trasted can be shown to be not only very different in charac- 
ter, but contradictory in spirit and opposite in direction: yet 
his object will throughout have remained the same. His re- 
solves, his wishes, his outlook may have been unchanged; 
his methods may be verbally irreconcilable. We cannot call 
this inconsistency. The only way a man can remain consistent 
amid changing circumstances is to change with them while 
preserving the same dominating purpose. 4 

Let us try then to grasp the dominating purpose of this brilliant, 
passionate, tenacious, and flexible man. According to the Illinois 
Republican State Central Committee, Douglas had worked 
steadily for the containment of slavery from 1845, when he 
introduced the amendment incorporating the Missouri Compro- 
mise line into the resolutions annexing Texas, until the fourth 
of January 1854, when he made his report as chairman of the 
Senate Committee on Territories, which introduced a new Ne- 
braska bill, "neither affirming nor repealing the eighth section of 
the Missouri Act." However, on January 23, 1854, "nineteen days 
after he was 'not prepared to recommend a departure' from the 
Missouri prohibition," says the Republican State Central Com- 
mittee, "Mr. Douglas brought in a new bill, dividing Nebraska 
into two Territories Kansas and Nebraska and repealing the 
Missouri Compromise . . ." This, says the committee, "constitutes 
the turning point in Mr. Douglas's political highway. From this 
sharp corner, his course is wholly and utterly pro-slavery, down 
to the introduction of the Lecompton bill in the Senate, where 
he takes a position of indifference, best expressed in his phrase, 
'Don't care whether slavery is voted down or voted up.' The 
indifferent mood is preserved a little more than two years, when, 
as will be seen by the record, he becomes more wrathfully pro- 
slavery than ever before." 

We shall then, in the words of another famous American, look 
at the record. Before doing so, however, we may be permitted 
to hear Douglas "off the record." It is, we believe, essential that 
such permission be granted, because Douglas's position as a party 
leader always depended upon maintaining an alliance of the 
Northwest with the South, even before the breakup of the Whig 


party made the survival of the Union depend so heavily upon 
the preservation of Democratic harmony. For it was this alliance 
which gave each wing of the party the prospect of membership 
in a majority coalition, without which either would almost cer- 
tainly have been condemned to minority status in the nation. 
And an overt condemnation of slavery or expressed hostility to 
it would have shattered such an alliance instantly, at any moment 
of Douglas's career. In like manner, it would be impossible to do 
full justice to Lincoln's policy in the 1850*5 without reading his 
off-the-record denunciations of the Know-Nothings. And so, in 
1854, in the first shock of the terrific attack by Chase and the 
other "Independent Democrats" in Congress upon Douglas's 
character and motives, amid the pealing of the tocsin that was 
to arouse the spirit of John Brown, a spirit that did not rest until 
the institution of slavery was dissolved by the blood of fratricidal 
war, Douglas spoke as follows to a young man, the son of an old 
friend and benefactor: 

I am not pro-slavery. I think it is a curse beyond computation 
to both white and black. But we exist as a nation by virtue 
only of the Constitution, and under that there is no way to 
abolish it. I believe that the only power that can destroy 
slavery is the sword, and if the sword is once drawn, no 
one can see the end. 5 

This "anti-slavery" sentiment, be it noted, came at the moment 
of the repeal of the Missouri Compromise, the supreme "pro- 
slavery" action of his life. But, he then observed in this private 
interview, repeal also meant that "slavery could no longer crouch 
behind a line which freedom dared not cross." By repealing the 
implied presumption in favor of slavery south of the line (and 
that the Missouri Compromise line implied such a presumption 
Lincoln conceded) Douglas expected that freedom would spread 
farther and faster. While no such out-and-out anti-slavery senti- 
ments can be found in the public records, we are justified in 
asking, as we scan those records, whether anything in them is 
inconsistent with such an anti-slavery bias. By and large we shall 
find that Douglas's record with respect to slavery rests upon two 
axioms: first, that the question must be kept out of the halls of 
Congress, where it could do only mischief by destroying national 
feeling; and, second, that the boundaries of the United States 


must be extended and new territory organized as rapidly as 
possible on the basis of popular sovereignty. The connection 
between these axioms is this: Douglas believed that the organiza- 
tion of new territory would rapidly result in new free states, would 
lead to an overwhelming preponderance of freedom over slavery 
in the Union and an absorption in the constructive task of filling 
and building up the vast continental domain, a task which would 
so engage the energies of the nation as to leave the subject of 
slavery neglected and largely forgotten. 

If one expression were needed for Douglas's policy, it would 
not be "popular sovereignty" but "expansion." Indeed, in Doug- 
las's political lexicon it would be difficult to distinguish accu- 
rately between the two. Expansion was the keynote of Douglas's 
foreign policy, popular sovereignty of his domestic policy, but 
they were related as the obverse and the reverse of a single coin. 
Douglas, more than Lincoln, identified the cause of political 
freedom with the freedom then known in the United States and 
therefore saw the central domestic task not, as Lincoln saw it, 
in preserving or perfecting that freedom, but in spreading it. 
Unlike Lincoln, Douglas had little or no confidence in the power 
of the American example to bring freedom to other lands or 
peoples. For Douglas the only effective security for American 
freedom lay in its own physical resources and power, and the 
only effective agency for increasing freedom lay in the expansion 
of American boundaries. The freedom-seeking oppressed peoples 
of the Old World, poured into the indefinitely expansible matrix 
of the American constitutional system, would in this way have a 
chance to share in enlightened political institutions. It was not 
Douglas's custom to indulge in remote speculations, but it is 
hardly an exaggeration to say that the ultimate logical con- 
sequence of his foreign policy would have been a federal republic 
of the world. Something like the Roman dream of a universal 
republic was the driving force behind his policies, but it was a 
universal republic in which local autonomy was genuine, not 
spurious. The American republic, unlike the Roman, would not 
be characterized by the ascendancy or hegemony of any one of 
its parts within the whole. The name "American" would belong 
originally, and of equal right, to each constituent community. It 
was the constitutional equality of each distinct political com- 
munity within the federal system which provided the guarantee 


that each accession of territory and population to the Union would 
mean an increase of human freedom and welfare. It was this 
which made American imperialism, unlike every other imperial- 
ism, a blessing to all humanity as well as to itself. It was popular 
sovereignty which made expansion both feasible (by disarming 
malice and envy) and desirable (by extending republican free- 

But we must now show how, from Douglas's viewpoint, the 
policy of expansion also served, in turn, the cause of popular 
sovereignty. In the Union as it was when Douglas's political career 
in Congress began in 1843, free and slave states were evenly 
balanced ( at thirteen each ) . A rising tide of attack upon slavery 
in the North was matched by a rising tide of defense of slavery 
in the South, a defense which increasingly insisted upon slavery 
as a "positive good/* How Douglas saw the political problem 
presented by the threat to the survival of American freedom from 
abolitionists on the one hand and Calhoun's "positive good" school 
on the other may be gathered from these widely circulated 
remarks in the Senate in 1848. In the midst of angry criminations 
and recriminations by the abolitionist Senator Hale of New 
Hampshire, and Calhoun, Foote, and Davis of the southern ultra 
side, Douglas addressed his fellow Democrats as follows: 

I said that the Senator from South Carolina, by the violent 
course pursued here, has contributed to the result which we 
deplored, and the abolitionism at the North was built up by 
Southern denunciation and Southern imprudence. I stated 
that there were men of the North who are ready to take 
advantage of that imprudent and denunciatory course and 
turn it to their own account, so as to make it revert upon the 
South ... I have no sympathy for abolitionism on the one 
side, or that extreme course on the other which is akin to 
abolitionism. We [Northern Democrats] are not willing to 
be trodden down, whilst you hazard nothing by your violence, 
which only builds up your adversary in the North. Nor does 
he hazard anything; quite the contrary, for he will thus be 
enabled to keep concentrated upon himself the gaze of the 
abolitionists, who will regard him as the great champion of 
freedom ... so that it comes to this, that between those 
two ultra parties, we of the North, who belong to neither, 


are thrust aside. Now, we will stand up for all your constitu- 
tional rights, in which we will protect you to the last . . . 
But we protest against being made instruments puppets 
in this slavery excitement, which can operate only to your 
interest and the building up of those who wish to put you 
down. 6 

It is instructive that this essentially moderate and middle 
ground of Douglas had already been characterized by the grim 
and uncompromising Calhoun as more offensive than abolitionism 
itself. The reason is brilliantly exposed by Douglas in the forego- 
ing passage: the extremes have a common interest against the 
mean. Calhoun's political goal in 1850, the consolidation of 
southern nationalism, depended upon the enemy in the North, 
abolitionism. The abolitionists, likewise, could not grow strong 
without Calhoun's "positive good" school. Southerners like Jeffer- 
son or Patrick Henry (or Henry Clay) were not convenient targets 
for abolitionist propaganda. Although such men did think that 
abolition was incompatible with the safety of the white South 
("Justice is in one scale, and self-preservation in the other," 
Jefferson had said), they were willing and even anxious to have 
gradual emancipation if some way could have been found to re- 
move the freed Negroes; but the last thing that abolitionists 
wanted was a responsible statesmanship that would face the very 
real question of race adjustment that emancipation would pose. 

But Calhoun, before he became an overt disunionist, had been 
converted from an American to a southern nationalist. His disci- 
ple, Hayne, in the celebrated debate with Webster, had already 
identified as the enemies of American liberty those who would 
convert this from a federal into a national union. American 
nationalism was thus conceived to be the deadly enemy of 
southern freedom. But Douglas, like Jackson, was nothing if not a 
nationalist. Where, however, southern extremists placed an ex- 
treme interpretation of the rights of the states under the federal 
Constitution, abolitionists denounced the Constitution out of 
hand. The Constitution not only sanctioned slavery but gave 
slaveholders the right to represent three persons in the House 
of Representatives for every five slaves. This, said the abolition- 
ists, meant offering a kind of perpetual bonus for enlarging the 
extent of human bondage. Such "compromises" were bargains 


with the devil, and the Constitution was a "covenant with hell." 
"No Union with slaveholders," cried abolitionists. 

Between these upper and nether millstones Douglas sought a 
formula of compromise and conciliation. An emergent American 
nationality was confronted with this gigantic obstacle of slavery. 
The sections would not, he saw, and could not agree upon the 
issue itself. The only way out was an agreement to disagree and 
a concentration of all loyalties upon that Constitution which safe- 
guarded this very precious right the right to disagree. Douglas's 
confidential words to young George McConnel are the tacit 
premise of his entire policy with respect to slavery: ". . . we 
exist as a nation by virtue only of the Constitution, and under 
that there is no way to abolish [slavery]." If we would understand 
why Douglas in the last analysis seems to sympathize more 
with the pro-slavery extreme than with the abolition extreme, 
we must remember that the pro-slavery party always took its 
stand upon the Constitution, albeit according to its own interpre- 
tation. Douglas's rhetoric appealed to a principle that the pro- 
slavery party at least recognized. The abolitionists, on the 
contrary, appealed to a "higher law," were willing to damn the 
Constitution, and admitted no premise to which Douglas might 
appeal in the interest of any compromise. 

Within the framework of the Constitution, thought Douglas, 
the only way to abolish slavery was to appeal to the people of 
the states and the territories, who did possess the constitutional 
power and right to deal as they wished with it. If abolitionists 
could not persuade the people morally and constitutionally com- 
petent to deal with slavery, they had no right to address them- 
selves to those who were incompetent. It meant appealing from 
persuasion to force, the very antithesis of political freedom. To 
alter the Constitution, as abolitionists wished, so as to bring 
slavery in the slave states under the power of the free states, 
meant removing a vital domestic question from the jurisdiction 
of a free community because it failed to meet the approval of 
those outside that community. Such an appeal was subversive 
of the very idea of free government, was the very formula of 
arbitrary power. The abolitionists might as well have appealed 
to foreign powers to enable them to accomplish their dearest wish. 
The genius of the federal system, its ability to extend itself and 
freedom simultaneously, lay in the scrupulous observance of this 


division of federal and local authority and the loyal acceptance 
of the decisions of constitutional majorities, however unpleasant, 
under the terms of that division. Despite Douglas's frequent 
statements to the effect that the slavery question would be de- 
cided by the people in each locality on the basis of self-interest, 
his appeal to the genius of federalism was in fact an appeal to 
self-restraint, to the denial of self-indulgence, to virtue. Like 
Lincoln, who once wrote that he bit his lip and kept silent about 
slavery as long as the South did no more than exercise its con- 
stitutional power over the subject, Douglas too believed that free- 
domincluding freedom of speech sometimes depended upon 
the ability of men to keep silent. 

Since, however, Douglas was indeed the "realist" George Fort 
Milton calls him, he had another solution of the problem than a 
dependence upon virtue thus conceived. This was the solution 
represented by the policy of expansion and was, in essence, an 
application of the theory of the Federalist Papers as expressed 
in the following passage from #51: "In a free government the 
security for civil rights must be the same as that for religious 
rights. It consists in the one case in the multiplicity of interests, 
and in the other in the multiplicity of sects. The degree of security 
in both cases will depend on the number of interests and sects; 
and this may be presumed to depend on the extent of country 
and number of people comprehended under the same govern- 
ment." And so Douglas felt that the danger of disunion and 
oppression which loomed large while the contest was between 
North and South might be dissipated as and when the country 
comprised still other sections. In short, he wished, through ex- 
pansion, to submerge factionalism in the melting pot of Union. 

The following is from an exchange with Webster in the Senate 
in 1850: 

We have heard so much talk about the North and the South, 
as if those two sections were the only ones necessary to be 
taken into consideration, when gentlemen begin to mature 
their arrangements for a dissolution of the Union . . . that 
I am gratified to find that there are those who appreciate 
the important truth, that there is a power in this nation 
greater than either the North or the South, a growing, in- 
creasing, swelling power, that will be able to speak the law 
to this nation, and to execute the law as spoken. That power 


is the country known as the great West . . . We indulge in 
no ultraisms no sectional strifes . . . Our aim will be to do 
justice to all . . , T 

The West, Douglas felt, while destined to be free soil, would 
not have that factious interest in slavery which characterized the 
abolition strongholds in the old free states. Douglas was confident 
that his own "plague on both your houses" attitude toward the 
old sectional dispute would be the attitude of the new states. 
For the West, constituting in this respect a land of third force ( or 
faction), would hold the balance between the other two. It would 
be able to give overwhelming preponderance to the North in 
opposing secession, or to the South in opposing abolition. It would 
have no vested interest besides the Constitution and the Union. 
The decisive constructive task of statesmanship, in Douglas's 
view, was to build the West rapidly enough so that it could 
play this role before the disruptive forces in the older sections 
became uncontrollable. 

Although Douglas never unequivocally denounced slavery as 
an evil or curse in public, he once came so close to doing so that 
his words should be carefully noted. It was in the same debate 
in which Calhoun and Hale figured so prominently in 1848. 
Douglas then said: 

In the North it is not to be expected that we should take 
the position that slavery is a positive gooda positive bless- 
ing. If we did assume such a position, it would be a very 
pertinent inquiry, Why do you not adopt this institution? 
We have moulded our institutions at the North as we have 
thought proper; and now we say to you of the South, if 
slavery be a blessing, it is your blessing; if it be a curse, it 
is your curse; enjoy it on you rest all the responsibility! 8 

One feature of this passage is the question it raises concerning 
the isothermic theory to which we have adverted above and upon 
which Douglas relied increasingly from 1854 onward. According 
to that theory, it was both expedient and right for white men 
to adopt slavery wherever soil and climate made it profitable. 
Here Douglas suggests that the North may have rejected slavery 
not because it was unprofitable but because it was a curse. That 
slavery, whatever its intrinsic good or evil, was an apple of dis- 
cord and thereby a fruitful source of evil to the American 


republic, Douglas certainly believed. But whereas Lincoln in- 
sisted upon the public recognition of the intrinsic evil of slavery 
as the only sound basis for any and all practical dealings with 
the institution, Douglas came increasingly to the conviction that 
practical measures directed toward the containment of slavery 
could succeed only if they did not involve the abstract question 
of the intrinsic good or evil of slavery. This, it would seem, ex- 
plains why Douglas never again spoke so openly of the vicious 
tendency of the Southern "positive good" school or openly de- 
fended his own northern constituents' "right to disagree" on the 
intrinsic merits of slavery. 

The speech from which we have just quoted was delivered 
only a decade before the joint debates. In the intervening period 
a number of changes occurred which greatly enforced the wisdom 
of this change of tactics. The ground for the conviction that 
popular sovereignty meant freedom became, in Douglas's opinion, 
immeasurably firmer; and as it did, the need to emphasize this 
agreeable truth to the North became proportionately less urgent, 
even as it became urgent to avert the gaze of the South from 
this disagreeable prospect. What were some of these changes? 
First was the admission of California as a free state in 1850, 
destroying forever the balance of free and slave states. No less 
important was the fact that California had become free by the 
completely unsupervised action of the Californians themselves; 
i.e., by popular sovereignty. The inhabitants of the new state 
were fairly evenly divided between those of free- and slave-state 
nativity, but opinion against slavery there was fairly unanimous. 
Yet California's political complexion was strongly Democratic, 
with a marked sympathy for the political demands of the slave 
states. In 1854 both her senators and representatives voted for the 
Kansas-Nebraska bill on a heavily sectional vote. Abolitionist 
sentiment there was virtually nonexistent. California was free soil 
because Mexican labor was cheaper, more economical than slave 
labor. And southern California was the only part of the vast Mex- 
ican acquisition believed to be suitable to slave culture. Douglas's 
increasing emphasis on the dollars-and-cents argumentwhich 
involved a willingness to concede the desirability of slavery in 
such places as Louisiana, a desirability he implicitly repudiated 
in the remarks of 1848 already citedcertainly seems to bear the 


impress of the success of popular sovereignty, as an instrument 
of freedom, in California. 

Another reason for Douglas's shift in tactics in the decade 1848- 
58 is the change in his northern constituency, meaning thereby 
the whole North, not only Illinois. That change was largely due 
to the amazing immigration of that decade. It has frequently been 
recorded that in each of the two decades before the Civil War 
immigration passed the two-million mark. But immigration in the 
ten years preceding the joint debates actually was well over three 
million. Of this, 44 per cent was Irish and 33 per cent German. 
Douglas was the first and perhaps the most popular national 
leader Irish-born Americans have ever had. 9 The Irish went over- 
whelmingly into the Democratic camp, although the Whig- 
Republican Seward in New York sharply challenged Douglas's 
appeal there by taking a strong anti-Know-Nothing stand. And 
the Irish, more strongly than any other group in the North, felt 
what was probably uniformly if less keenly felt by nearly all 
elements of Lincoln's free-soil coalition except the radical aboli- 
tionists. This was a hatred of the Negro exceeding the hatred 
of slavery. The Irish, who constituted the central reserve of cheap 
unskilled free labor, a reserve which pushed forward railroad 
development, always a major plank in Douglas's platform, bitterly 
detested the thought of competition with Negro labor. The Irish, 
therefore, like the great majority of laboring whites of the North, 
were against both the spread of slavery, which might have 
brought them into contact with Negroes, and against any tend- 
ency toward Negro emancipation, which would have had the 
same consequence. Douglas had no stronger rhetorical trump in 
1858 than the one he sounded at Ottawa, in the first joint debate, 
when he said: "Do you desire to turn this beautiful state into 
a free Negro colony, in order that when Missouri abolishes 
slavery she can send one hundred thousand emancipated slaves 
into Illinois . . . ?" 

A further consequence of the vast immigration we have noted 
was to render largely theoretical the abolitionist charge against 
the Constitution, that in effect it offered, in its three-fifths clause, 
a reward for enslavement. This clause in the Constitution had 
weighed heavily in the opposition of men like Daniel Webster 
to territorial expansion. Lincoln always incorporated Webster s 
arguments against the three-fifths clause in his indictment of the 
slave power. Yet the vast augmentation of the population of the 


free states, over and above natural increase, by reason of foreign 
immigration (for only a tiny fraction of immigrants went into 
slave states, where they might have had to compete with black 
labor), gave the free states an overwhelming preponderance in 
the House of Representatives and in the electoral college. One 
Southerner testily remarked that when it was made a capital 
crime to import a Negro from Africa it should at least have been 
made a felony to bring in an Irishman. 

The potato famine in Ireland, the crop failures in Germany, 
the abortive European revolutions, particularly in Germany in 
1848, all swelled the tide to this country. Until the relatively 
short-lived panic of 1857 there was general prosperity, both here 
and abroad, during the decade. Great Britain's repeal of the Corn 
Laws in 1846, the California gold rush, the Crimean War, all 
conspired to place American agriculture under forced draft. The 
same forces that enormously expanded the cotton culture of the 
South were setting the prairies on fire with the demand for 
American grain. 

The crisis over slavery was largely brought on by the sharpening 
competition, within the American agricultural system, of the grain 
and cotton interests for new lands and new laborers. But the 
agricultural economy which centered upon grain production ( but 
including much more general diversified farming than that 
centered upon cotton) was a free-labor economy. In such an 
economy both capital and labor were more mobile. The agricul- 
tural entrepreneur of the free state could put his capital entirely 
into land and equipment. Slavery did not require of him any 
capital accumulation for labor, nor did his dignity prevent him 
or his children from laboring in their own fields. If he needed 
more labor, he could hire it and pay for it out of current produc- 
tion. Indeed, the very prosperity of the southern economy in 
the fifties made it a poorer competitor in the western territories 
where popular sovereignty was to rule. For the skyrocketing of 
slave prices made slaves too valuable to risk in regions not pro- 
tected by the elaborate system of racial control of the slave states: 
slave codes, slave patrols, and judges, juries, and police all 
thoroughly devoted to the institution. Moreover, the high prices 
of slaves in the fifties also reflected the increasing profitability 
of the employment of slaves in the older South, which for nearly 
a generation had been mainly concerned with exporting them 
to newer regions. In short, never had slaveowners had less in- 


centive to risk slaves in places where their tenure might prove 

Free labor did not need any elaborate system of controls; wages 
and profits and the hope of bettering one's lot generated the 
conditions for its success spontaneously. The mobility, flexibility, 
and spontaneity of the free-labor system meant clearly, as it must 
have appeared to the keenly observant vision of Douglas, that 
the odds were overwhelmingly in favor of free-stater and free-soil 
in any contest for western lands conducted under the rules of 
popular sovereignty. In Allan Nevins's words, ". . . it was plain 
that if the country held together, every step forward would 
strengthen the free society as against the slave society." But pre- 
cisely if this were true, does it not mean that the primary task of 
statesmanship in this period was to hold the country together 
rather than to indulge in moral condemnation of slavery? Nay, 
did it not mean to hold the country together even if it required 
the condonation of slavery, a propitiation of the slave interest 
by a kind of pretended agreement with its prejudices, which 
would thus lull it into a false sense of security and thereby give 
it a kiss of death? Douglas, during the fifties, had far more ex- 
tensive contacts and acquaintances throughout the South than 
did Lincoln, and he was impressed, as Lincoln apparently was 
not, with the immediate danger from the unreconstructed disci- 
ples of Calhoun, who would break up the Union rather than per- 
mit the slave states to become a minority. 

Douglas had been confronted with this resolve in 1849, when 
Calhoun had rallied support for a constitutional amendment 
guaranteeing that the number of free and slave states would 
always be in balance. It is probable in the extreme that Calhoun 
was as much interested in promoting secession as in promoting 
the amendment, by laying down an ultimatum to the North upon 
which the South would rally. To the idea itself, Douglas then 
responded as follows: 

As I understand [the Senator from South Carolina] he desires 
such an amendment as shall stipulate that, in all time to 
come . . . there shall always be as many slaveholding as free 
states in this Union. In my opinion, the adoption and execu- 
tion of such a constitutional provision would be a moral and 
physical impossibility. In the first place, it is not to be pre- 


sumed that the people of the free states would ever agree to 
such an amendment . . . and secondly, if they should, it 
would be impossible to carry it into effect. I have already had 
occasion to remark, that at the time of the adoption of the 
Constitution, there were twelve slaveholding states, and only 
one free state, and of those twelve, six of them have since 
abolished slavery. This fact shows that the cause of freedom 
has steadily and firmly advanced, while slavery has receded 
in the same ratio. We all look forward with confidence to the 
time when Delaware, Maryland, Virginia, Kentucky, and 
Missouri, and probably North Carolina and Tennessee, will 
adopt a gradual system of emancipation, under the operation 
of which, those states must, in process of time, become free. 
In the meantime, we have a vast territory, stretching from 
the Mississippi to the Pacific, which is rapidly filling up 
with a hardy, enterprising, and industrious population, large 
enough to form at least seventeen new free states . . . Now 
let me inquire, where are you to find the slave territory with 
which to balance these seventeen free territories, or even any 
one of them? . . . Will you annex all Mexico? If you do, at 
least twenty out of twenty-two will be free states, if the "law 
of the formation of the earth, the ordinances of Nature, or 
the will of God," is to be respected, or if the doctrine shall 
prevail of allowing the people to do as they please . . . 
Then, sir, the proposition of the Senator from South Carolina 
is entirely impracticable. It is also inadmissible, if practicable. 
It would revolutionize the fundamental principles of the 
government. It would destroy the great principle of popular 
equality, which must necessarily form the basis of all free in- 
stitutions. It would be a retrograde movement in an age of 
progress that would astonish the world. 10 

That Douglas in 1858 could make Missouri emancipation a 
bogey after regarding it as a logical step forward in an age of 
progress in 1849 does not of necessity imply any fundamental 
change of view or purpose. The rise of a political party in the 
free states whose central unifying principle was hostility to the 
institution of slavery was consolidating all political lines in the 
South upon the single principle of defense of the institution of 
slavery. Douglas's political life depended upon destroying pro- or 
anti-slavery tests as the basis of political orthodoxy, North or 


South. This meant attacking the attackers of slavery in the North 
and the defenders of slavery in the South. It meant political trim- 
ming, to be sure. But it was trimming of a high, even noble quality. 
To keep the ship of state on an even keel it was necessary at 
different times to throw his weight in opposite directions. 

Once the Republican party had been formed and had shown 
its inherent capacity to carry a national election on the central 
rallying point of hostility to slavery (as it had done in 1856 ), n 
the problem of political balance was entirely different from what 
it had been when the Whig party was a vital force in all parts of 
the country. Douglas could say in 1848, almost in so many words, 
that slavery was the curse of the South, and then say in 1858 
that if he were a citizen of Louisiana he would vote to keep 
slavery. But 1848 was the year in which a Louisiana slaveholder 
was elected President of the United States as the nominee of the 
Whig party. In 1848 there were fifteen free and fifteen slave states. 
In 1858 there were no new slave states, but California and 
Minnesota had been added to the ranks of the free states. The 
entry of Oregon was imminent. By the summer of 1858 the final 
rejection of the Lecompton Constitution under the terms of the 
English bill meant the definite victory of the free-soil party in 
Kansas. There was scarcely a man in the country who soberly and 
seriously believed that any of the remaining territory, organized 
or unorganized, north of 3&3P" would ever become slave states. 
While there might be more doubt concerning New Mexico 
Territory because of its more southerly location and its greater 
susceptibility to the political pressures of the South, the over- 
whelming weight of opinion was that the deserts and mountains 
which made up so much of its area would never render slavery 
profitable there. 

As the conditions making for the certain triumph of the free- 
soil movement were growing ever stronger as Douglas viewed the 
scene, so were fear and hatred of the Negro, whose ultimate 
emancipation was thus apparently becoming assured, growing 
worse. This painful and melancholy fact must be faced by the 
historian no less than by his subjects. In 1853 the legislature of 
Illinois acted to cany out a provision of the state constitution 
adopted in 1847. This provision had been adopted in a special 
referendum by a vote of more than two to one. The legislature 
was authorized to exclude free Negro immigration into the state, 
which it now proceeded to do, providing heavy fines for any 


Negro apprehended entering Illinois. Any Negro caught entering 
the state who could not pay the fine was to be sold at public 
auction to whoever would pay his fine in exchange for the shortest 
term of his service. The treatment of the free Negro throughout 
the North was steadily worsening. Let it be remembered that 
in 1820 virtually the entire North had voted against the admission 
of Missouri into the Union, even after the admission of Maine, 
and the prohibition of slavery in the remaining Louisiana territory 
north of 36'3o", because of the clause in Missouri's constitution 
forbidding the entry of free Negroes. For this provision was then 
held to violate Article IV, Section 2, of the United States Con- 
stitution, which guarantees to the citizens of each state all 
privileges and immunities of citizens of the several states. Thirty- 
seven years before the Dred Scott decision it was hardly doubted 
that Negroes might be among the "citizens of each state" to whom 
the Constitution guaranteed "privileges and immunities"! That 
Negroes were "so far inferior that they had no rights which the 
white man was bound to respect" was an opinion Taney in 1857 
attributed to the Revolutionary generation, to men of the stamp 
of Jefferson, Washington, Franklin, and Hamilton, every one of 
whom denounced slavery as against the unalienable natural right 
of every man, white or black, to liberty! Lincoln was certainly 
right when he insisted, against Taney, that opinion in regard to 
the Negro had become far more unfavorable than it had been 
when the Constitution was framed, and that public opinion was 
rapidly becoming what Taney erroneously said it had formerly 

In the face of this increasingly unfavorable opinion of the 
Negro, however, even in the free states, was not Douglas, as a 
popular leader who was necessarily limited to achieving his ends 
in and through popular opinion, thereby justified in echoing back 
that opinion? Was he not thus justified, particularly when it ap- 
peared to him that to oppose such opinion would be destructive 
of the free-soil cause itself? For it is practically certain that, had 
the conservative rank and file of the free-soil movement become 
convinced that the absolute containment of slavery, for which 
Lincoln and the radicals stood, involved the immediate or near 
prospect of large-scale emancipation, the whole movement would 
have suffered a tremendous and possibly fatal shock. 

Hatred of the Negro was almost indistinguishable from hatred 
of slavery as the dynamic of the Northern free-soil movement 


Lincoln's demand for putting slavery where the public mind could 
rest in the belief that it was "in course of ultimate extinction" 
was compatible with a gradualness of almost indefinite ex- 
tent And Lincoln was frequently careful to co-ordinate any 
mention of "ultimate extinction" with equally vague suggestions 
of the gradual removal of emancipated Negroes to Africa or some 
other congenial clime. It has not been sufficiently noted that 
Lincoln's advocacy of colonization schemes, apart from its mani- 
fest seriousness, also served the practical purpose of gaining 
acceptance of the idea of the "ultimate extinction" of slavery by 
his rabidly anti-Negro free-soil followers. It made possible thereby 
the maintenance in the movement of high moral tone, because 
it encouraged the feeling of moral indignation at the Negro's 
enslavement, without interfering with the luxury of prejudice 
against the Negro himself. But if the free-soil movement had come 
to fear that large-scale emancipation might have resulted from 
strict confinement of slavery within its existing boundaries, it 
would have faced a crisis of its own. A prospect of large-scale 
migration of freed Negroes to the North might have turned the 
movement toward support of the southern filibustered, who 
wished to carve a slave empire in Mexico or Central America. 
Douglas desperately attacked this Achilles' heel of Lincoln's argu- 
ment; on the one hand attacking the alleged humanitarianism of 
the anti-slavery crusade, by insisting upon the immorality of 
confining Negroes in the old South, where their rapid natural in- 
crease would lead to starvation when they could no longer be 
profitably employed there, and on the other by stressing the dan- 
ger of freed Negro immigration into the North. Allowing white 
men everywhere to use or not to use them, according to their own 
best judgment, was Douglas's formula. In the circumstances, this 
meant capitalizing chiefly on the anti-Negro feeling of the North, 
while Lincoln capitalized chiefly on the anti-slavery feeling 
there. The practical coincidence of both feelings should not, how- 
ever, be minimized, nor should the fact that both men made 
appeals to the other's staple argument. For Douglas did not hesi- 
tate to point out how popular sovereignty was achieving freedom 
in Kansas, as it had in California; nor did Lincoln hesitate to 
abjure all intention to give political or social equality to the Negro 
race anywhere in this country. If Lincoln's rhetoric with its 
frequent appeals to the universalism of the Declaration of Inde- 
pendence seems today to be couched in terms of greater dignity, 


we must remember that it involved the deliberate risk of civil 
war, something that Douglas as resolutely undertook to avoid. 
Had popular sovereignty been advertised as a free-soil device, it 
would have lost all its efficacy as a dampener of sectional strife. 
Indeed, the more it became such a device, the more necessary it 
became to avoid the appearance, the more necessary it was for 
Douglas to insist upon his neutrality on the morality of slavery. 
When Calhoun in 1850 spoke of the rights of the South in 
the common territories of the nation, Douglas resoundingly denied 
that the South or the North had any such rights. The Constitution, 
he said, knows only the states and the people. The only ones who 
had rights in the territories, he maintained, were the people in 
the territories. If the doctrine of popular sovereignty were only 
recognized as the true doctine, slavery agitation could be ban- 
ished from the halls of Congress and sectionalism effaced. The 
gallant stand which Douglas took against Calhoun's determined 
and, alas, successful attempt to replace American with southern 
nationality in the South must be placed alongside his refusal to 
condemn the peculiar institution on moral grounds in the fifties. 
His bold attempt simultaneously to open the floodgates of free- 
soil expansion and to avert civil war was a dominating purpose 
to which all other purposes remained subordinate. Whether right 
or wrong, there is a large consistency in all Douglas's dealings 
with the "vexed question," a sustained and unchanging concep- 
tion of what was good for the nation, to which his individual moral 
judgments remained subordinate. And this purpose and this con- 
ception command respect for their moral worth, whether or not 
we finally accept them as the highest possible moral goals for a 
statesman of his time. 

Chapter IV 
Manifest Destiny 

THE foregoing is an explanation of the general principles govern- 
ing Douglas's approach to the "vexed question." We believe that 
it exonerates Douglas from any charge of shallow opportunism or 
moral obtuseness. Certainly no one has the right to denounce his 
"moral perceptions" who has not shown, first, that it was wrong 
to subordinate the slavery issue, upon which North and South 
could not agree, to an aim and purpose upon which they could 
agree; and, second, that the aim upon which sectional agreement 
and subordination of slavery was pitched was itself immoral. The 
emergence of the Republican party foreshadowed the possibility 
that there might be a constitutional majority formed without the 
necessity of a single vote from a slave state, a majority which 
might thus be able to dispense with those restraints which such 
a necessity would have imposed. In the developing crisis of the 
fifties, Douglas's was the only powerful voice faithful to the idea 
that national political platforms must be framed to satisfy the 
moral and constitutional sentiments recognized by majority opin- 
ion North and South. 1 The least that can be said for the platform 
upon which he stood was that it represented the highest common 
denominator of sectional agreement. If at last such agreement 
proved too slight to preserve the Union without war, it does not 
follow that Douglas was at fault for not abandoning it. 

The historian has the duty to say those things in behalf of 
Douglas's policy which he himself could not say without en- 
dangering whatever chances it possessed. When, therefore, the 
"Don't care" statements and the "dollars and cents" arguments of 
the later fifties are repeated, it is right also to go back to such 


earlier speeches as that of 1849, from which we have quoted, 
speeches uncontradicted if unrepeated in later years, in which 
Douglas expressed the firm conviction that slavery would be un- 
profitable everywhere in the West and even in twenty of twenty- 
two possible states that might be carved out of the remainder 
of Mexico, should that country be entirely annexed to the United 
States. It is also right to emphasize that in 1849 he did not say 
economic conditions alone favored freedom. The lands would be 
free, he said, either because of soil, climate, and productions or 
"if the doctrine shall prevail of allowing the people to do as they 

We can think of nothing more damaging to Douglas's reputation 
as a statesman than such an explanation of his conduct as the 
following by his unreserved devotee, George Fort Milton: "Doug- 
las had premonitions of trouble over the repeal of the Missouri 
Compromise, but he saw so clearly the inevitable effect climate, 
soil and natural productions would have on human institutions in 
Kansas and Nebraska that he unduly discounted the effect on the 
emotions of men, of aroused fears, passions and hates/' 2 But how 
could Douglas, who in 1849 expected slavery to wither away in 
Delaware, Maryland, Virginia, Kentucky, Missouri, and North 
Carolina, have been seriously convinced that soil and climate ine- 
luctably determined moral attitudes toward chattel slavery? There 
had been no noticeable change in the soil, climate, or productions 
of those states. Either slavery should not have gone there in the 
first place or Douglas should not have expected it to wither away, 
if there was any truth to the isothermic theory. Nor could the 
expansion of cotton culture in the fifties, with the renewed vitality 
of the peculiar institution accompanying it, have changed any 
well-founded convictions on this subject. The cultivation of cotton 
did not require the exclusive use of Negro labor, nor did the utili- 
zation of that labor require that Negroes be chattels. Far from 
discounting the effect of fear and hate, these were the passions 
that Douglas strove to neutralize. What had happened, in 
Douglas's view, was that the processes of gradual emancipation, 
of gradual attenuation of slavery, were first arrested, then re- 
versed, as a result of abolitionist propaganda and the rise of the 
free-soil movement in the North. Allowing the people to do as 
they pleased was not understood by Douglas to be a policy of 
indifference, of voting slavery up or down; it meant voting 


slavery down. Under the pressure of the anti-slavery crusade, 
however, the South could no longer do as it "pleased." Fear that 
control over slavery, control over the process of transformation 
in the relation of the races, which Douglas foresaw in 1849, would 
be taken out of its hands, had perverted the evolution of moral 
sentiment in the South. Douglas's policy, founded upon the 
doctrine of popular sovereignty, by guaranteeing to all localities, 
North and South, the unquestioned control of their domestic in- 
stitutions, would then have looked to the reassertion of this 
"normal" anti-slavery opinion, an opinion in conformity with the 
"spirit of the age." It is an insult to Douglas's great intelligence 
to think that he took with full seriousness the "soil and climate" 
argument, a doctrine which seems to have been designed to win 
acceptance of popular sovereignty rather than for any independ- 
ent merit of its own. 

In 1849 it was clear to Douglas that Calhoun's amendment, at- 
tempting to give slave states a guarantee of political equality 
with free states, would have been a "retrograde movement in an 
age of progress which would astonish the world." Douglas, like 
Professor Nevins, believed that the tendency of the age was to- 
ward freedom. But, as the South's reversal of direction showed, 
the problem of how to assure progress, even in an age of progress, 
was exceedingly complex. And the future of the Republic in- 
volved more than the resolution of the inner cleavage over slavery 
and sectional antagonism; it also involved the external antagonism 
between a free republic and the forces of despotism, the forces of 
predatory imperialism abroad in the world outside the United 
States. We must observe now how Douglas's tactics with respect 
to slavery formed part of a broad strategy, of advancing the cause 
of republican freedom in the mid-nineteenth century. 

When Douglas first took his seat in Congress in 1843, the 
absorbing question was the annexation (or, according to the 
Democrats, "re-annexation") of Texas. It was linked, in the course 
of the session, with that of the occupation ( or, again, "re-occupa- 
tion") of Oregon. From the ensuing impulse of expansion, the 
United States increased its territory upon the continent between 
the years 1845 and 1848 from about 1.8 million square miles to 
about three million. For the annexation of Texas was presently 
followed by the Mexican War and the addition to the Union, by 


conquest and purchase, of California and the territories of Utah 
and New Mexico. Meanwhile, a diplomatic settlement with Great 
Britain confirmed our title to all of Oregon south of the forty- 
ninth parallel. These lands, together with the Gadsden Purchase 
of 1853, rounded out our present continental domain and, notwith- 
standing much mountain and desert, included some of the fairest 
upon this or any other continent. The collapse of the Spanish 
Empire in the New World was the primary condition of these 
acquisitions ( as it had been that of Louisiana), but the feebleness 
and political imbecility of Mexico were the secondary ones. 

While in retrospect it may seem inevitable that such a vacuum 
of power would be filled by the virile force of the nascent Ameri- 
can republic, the rapid occupation of these vast spaces must 
have dazzled the imagination in 1848, as it certainly dazzled that 
of Stephen A. Douglas. A nation that might expand by nearly a 
million and a quarter square miles in three years might surely 
be expected to expand by some millions more in, say, a century! 
Such at least was the impact of the forties upon the horizon of 
Douglas, the background of his plans and projects in the fifties. 
Without appreciating Douglas's vision of future American empire, 
and Lincoln's reaction to it, one cannot grasp the scope or magni- 
tude of the issues between them. 

In 1843 we had no recognized titles to any of the afore- 
mentioned lands and the question of whether the United States 
would be of continental extent was as unsettled as most of the 
disputed territory. West of the Mississippi only Louisiana, Arkan- 
sas, and Missouri had become states. While it was reasonably 
certain that the tier of Louisiana states on the west bank of the 
Mississippi would be extended to the Canadian border, as it was 
by the admission of Iowa in 1846 and Minnesota in 1858 (after 
territorial organization in 1849), *h ere was no clear national 
intention that the political organization of states would ever pro- 
ceed further. Most of the remaining Louisiana territory was 
secured "in perpetuity" to Indian tribes by treaty and lay unor- 
ganized and wild. Only by the acquisition of the Pacific coast was 
the die cast that made it economically and politically necessary 
for the United States to develop the vast heartland west of the 
Mississippi to the Rockies, the center of which, Kansas and 
Nebraska, was to supply the immediate issue over which Lincoln 
and Douglas were to clash. 

Before the annexation of Texas and the consequent embroil- 


ment with Mexico, the whole question of westward expansion 
was unresolved. The decision in favor of expansion is today so 
much taken for granted that it is difficult for us to realize how 
deeply it divided the country at the time. Today it is almost in- 
conceivable that we should be involved in a foreign war in which 
the President would be denounced as the aggressor and the 
foreign enemy referred to as the victim by leading members of 
the political opposition. Lincoln's denunciation of Polk, in the 
House, comes very close to what both a later and an earlier age 
would call treason, or at least criminal disloyalty. And, it is fair 
to add, Lincoln as President put men in jail for criticisms of his 
administration no more severe than his of Polk. The division over 
the Mexican War was a foreshadowing of the Civil War. 

Wholly apart from the question of the profit from, or loss of, 
the immensely valuable Mexican lands to the west and south were 
the questions whether the area now embraced by the United 
States would eventually consist of one ocean-bound republic or 
several; whether British power in North America would equal or 
exceed that of the United States; and whether Mexico, with none 
of the Anglo-Saxon traditions or capacity for self-government or 
civil liberty, would one day give her law and civilization to the 
entire American Far West and Southwest. Together, these com- 
prised the question of whether the political future of North 
America would be divided or subdivided among a number of 
widely differing regimes and relatively equal powersor powers 
sufficiently equal so that, with alliances, they might hope to 
balance or overcome each other or whether the continent would 
be subject to the overmastering hegemony of one giant republic. 
While the Whigs, whose greatest spokesman was Webster, op- 
posed the annexation even of Texas, the exponents of Manifest 
Destiny, than whom none was more articulate than Douglas, 
spoke without hesitation of the acquisition of the whole of Can- 
ada, Mexico, Central America, and the islands of the Caribbean. 

Douglas's speech on Texas annexation is, for the most part, 
an elaborate legalistic justification: the original Louisiana Pur- 
chase had included Texas and a guarantee of United States 
citizenship to all inhabitants of the territory ceded by France, but 
in 1819 we had traded Texas and the Texans to Spain in exchange 
for Florida, thus violating our plighted national faith. Because of 
this justification, Douglas would not, he said dwell 


upon the numerous advantages that would attend the annex- 
ation of Texas, in stimulating the industry of the whole 
country; in opening new markets for the manufactures of the 
North and East; in the extension of commerce and naviga- 
tion; in bringing the waters of the Red River, the Arkansas, 
and other streams flowing into the Mississippi, entirely with 
[in] our territorial limits; in the augmentation of politi- 
cal power; in securing safer and more natural boundaries, and 
avoiding the danger of collisions with foreign powerswith- 
out dwelling upon these and other considerations, appealing 
to our interests and pride as a people and a nation, it is 
sufficient argument with me that our honor and violated 
faith require the immediate re-annexation of Texas to the 

In contradiction to Webster's repeated warnings that "it is of 
very dangerous tendency and doubtful consequences to enlarge 
the boundaries of this country" and that there "must be some limit 
to the extent of our territory, if we would make our institutions 
permanent," Douglas replied: 

... in regard to the extension of territory. He regarded all 
apprehensions unfavorable to the perpetuity of our insti- 
tutions from this source as ideal. The application of steam 
power to transportation and travel has brought the remotest 
limits of the confederacy, now comprising twenty-six states 
(if we are permitted to count by time instead of distance) 
much nearer to the center than when there were but thirteen. 
The revolution is progressing, and the facilities and rapidity 
of communication are increasing in a much greater ratio than 
our territory or population. 3 

By a strange paradox, we find the heir of Jefferson, via Jackson, 
defending the expansion of the Union in terms of the technological 
revolution, while the heir of Hamilton, Webster, was to ask: 

What sympathy can there be between the people of Mexico 
and California and the inhabitants of the Valley of the 
Mississippi and the Eastern States in the choice of a Presi- 
dent? Do they know the same man? Do they concur in any 
general constitutional principles? . . . Arbitrary government 
may have territories and distant possessions, because arbi- 
trary governments may rule them by different laws and 


different systems. Russia may rule in the Ukraine and the 
provinces of the Caucasus and Kamtschatka [the Russian 
name for Alaska] by different codes, ordinances, or ukases. 
We can do no such thing. They must be of us, part of us, 
or else strangers. 4 

Thus the arch-Whig, the Publius of the Federalist Papers redivi- 
vus, employing the classic argument of the party that opposed 
adoption of the Constitution! The idea that liberty was essentially 
local, dependent upon intimacy, was the argument of Jeffersonian 
democracy, the argument that justified, if not opposing the Con- 
stitution, at least construing the powers of the federal government 
so narrowly as to leave it little to do beyond providing for the 
common defense. Jeffersonian democracy involved moreover a 
preference for agriculture over other occupations, because an 
agricultural society was precisely the kind in which the tasks of 
the federal government could be kept minimal. 

When in 1837 Webster first spoke against the annexation 
of Texas, he said he believed the Founders of the republic never 
intended it to include states from any lands not possessed by the 
Union in 1787. The Louisiana Purchase he attributed to the 
necessity to control the mouths of the rivers that rose in the 
western states, the navigation of which was vital and had already 
been disputed. The acquisition of Florida was due, he said, to a 
like, if less urgent, necessity. Webster apparently gave little 
thought to the possibility that the Founders would have wished 
to expand the boundaries of the Union to secure advantages for 
manufacturing, commercial, or shipping interests. Perhaps Jeffer- 
son would have advised against such a policy, but we cannot help 
believing that it would have been warmly endorsed by Hamilton. 
The strict constructionist principles of Jefferson fit the idea of a 
relatively loosely knit union, because an agricultural society 
is relatively independent in its parts, the states or sections. By 
comparison with an industrial society, its parts exchange little of 
their agricultural surpluses with each other and much with for- 
eign nations who supply them with manufactured goods. In the 
Hamiltonian union, there is much greater interdependence, much 
more internal trade, many more and different interests to regulate 
and adjust, much more of a common good, and hence a great deal 
more for the federal government to do. The Hamiltonian union 
must, therefore, be a much stronger union, stronger because of 


the power the central government must have if its business is so 
much greater, and stronger because of the loyalties it must com- 
mand if its decisions are to be accepted. Clay's "American 
system," to which Webster was vigorously committed, was the lin- 
eal descendant of Hamilton's Report on Manufactures. 

Webster's intense ultramontane unionism was thoroughly con- 
sistent with this inheritance, but his view of the territorial 
confinement of the Union was, in itself, anomalous. Hamilton's 
protectionist views implied the desirability of a high degree of 
autarchy; but autarchy meant bringing under one's own domina- 
tion as much of one's market and sources of supply as possible. 
Hamilton would never have shrunk from expansionism in pursuit 
of such goals. In 1798 he had a bold scheme for entering the 
war then raging in Europe on the side of Britain: ". . . in co- 
operation with the Venezuelan patriot Francisco de Miranda, the 
allied American and British fleet would liberate Spanish America 
and annex Florida and Louisiana as our share of the conquests 
. . . [and the] wavering West, grateful for the Mississippi River 
freed at last, would be securely attached, not only to the United 
States, but to their benefactors, the Federalists.'^ Hamilton's un- 
inhibited imperialism would have been after Douglas's heart. The 
irony is that the torch for such imperialism should have been 
carried forward in the name of Manifest Destiny by Jefferson's 
party. We venture the hypothesis that it was the acquisition of 
Louisiana under Jeffersonian instead of Hamiltonian auspices, 
rather than any profound and principled opposition to expansion 
as such, which turned Federalist- Whig foreign policy into one of 
traditional hostility to all projects of aggrandizement. The West 
was indeed grateful to its benefactors, but they were the wrong 
benefactors, from the Federalist-Whig viewpoint! Moreover, it 
was Federalism, whose historic mission was to convert a loose con- 
federation into a strong union, that, soured by defeat and 
frustration, engendered the first potent secession movement. Like 
the vision of Macbeth beholding the royal line which was to de- 
scend from Banquo, Louisiana became a nightmare to unrecon- 
structed Federalists in which a procession of new states entered 
the Union, firmly wedded to the interests, convictions, arid party 
espoused by the hated Jefferson. Later the embargo and the War 
of 1812 gave new intensity to New England Federalism's sense of 
hopeless submersion in the Union, and the Hartford Convention 
may have proved abortive only because of the sudden ending of 


the war. There were few arguments in favor of secession, except 
those relating directly to slavery, that did not have a trial in New 
England before 1815, prior to their employment in the South in 

The split between Hamilton and Adams, which ended any hope 
for Hamilton's scheme of entry into the European war in 1798 
on the side of Britain, gave a sharper twist to the course of our 
history than the wrecking of the Federalist party, sharp as that 
was. It meant that this country's partnership with Great Britain 
in maintaining a balance of power in the world favorable to the 
development (or survival) of free political institutions, a ruling 
fact of the twentieth century, did not strike deep roots until the 
Civil War. Lincoln's administration was to mark a turning point 
in Anglo-American relations, as in almost every other aspect of 
American politics. 

The anti-British animus of the Revolution had died in the 
breasts of men like Washington, Adams, and Hamilton almost as 
soon as the treaty of peace was signed. In the wars of the French 
Revolution their sympathies were markedly Anglophile, while 
those of Jefferson's party were Francophile. While both Washing- 
ton and Jefferson strove to maintain American neutrality, the 
electoral revolution of 1800, which enthroned Jefferson's party 
for a quarter century, meant that American foreign policy 
was "neutral against" the British. The embargo struck at the 
British, for example, who controlled the seas, rather than the 
French. And fighting for the freedom of the seas in 1812 meant, 
concretely, aiding Napoleon. But it is the legacy of that war 
for domestic politics that must command our attention here. 
As in the Revolution, the British in 1812 supplied whisky, money, 
and leadership "to bring on the inhabitants of our frontiers, the 
merciless Indian Savages, whose known rule of warfare is an un- 
distinguished destruction of all ages, sexes, and conditions." As a 
result, hatred of the British and hatred of the Indians became 
almost indistinguishable passions among frontiersmen in ensuing 
decades. The West that would have been gained in partnership 
with Britain, had Hamilton prevailed, looked upon Britain as a 
deadly enemy. Jackson was raised to power in large measure be- 
cause of his reputation as a fighter against both British and 
Indians. The importance of this reputation may be better ap- 


predated by remembering that when in 1840 the Whigs finally 
did break the Jacksonian hold on the presidency it was by run- 
ning another supposedly successful Indian fighter, "Old Tippe- 
canoe" Harrison. In that campaign the Whigs did not bother to 
have a platform, except "log cabins" and "hard cider." To such as 
these was their imperishable rhetoric largely devoted, as well as 
to such alleged facts as that the Easterner, Van Buren, wore lace 
shirts. The Whigs' only other presidential victory was also won 
with a successful general who was minus a platform. And 
although Taylor is better remembered for his Mexican War ex- 
ploits, he too had done many years' service on the Indian frontier. 
Jacksonian democracy thus had a deeper anti-British motivation 
than the rather intellectual and pacifistic Anglophobia of Jeffer- 
son. And its roots were deeper than the experience even of the 

"The nucleus of Jacksonian democracy," writes Professor Wil- 
fred E. Binkley, "was an ethnic group, the Scotch-Irish stock. 
These were the descendants of the unfortunates . . . harried from 
their Ulster homes and finding refuge in the American wilder- 
ness, where they nursed an undying hatred of their British 
persecutors. The rifles that blazed across the cotton-bale breast- 
works at New Orleans on January 8, 1815 and mowed down the 
redcoat lines were to them but the avenging instalments of a 
just God in the hands of the faithful. Jacksonian democracy knew 
no stronger emotional bond of unity than its universal hatred of 
the British. It was peculiarly appropriate that the eighth of 
January became the fixed date of the annual party banquet." 8 

It is more than curious that all the greatest Whig names e.g., 
Adams, Webster, Clay, Harrison and Tyler, Taylor and Fillmore, 
and Lincoln were of predominantly English ancestry. It is only 
in the opposite party that we find other ethnic strains conspicuous 
among the leaders. Jackson and Polk were both of Scotch-Irish 
descent, Van Buren Dutch, Buchanan Scotch, among the presi- 
dents. Even Jefferson traced his ancestors to Wales. Calhoun 
was of Scotch-Irish stock and, although for a time after his break 
with Jackson he joined the Whigs, it should be remembered that 
he was Jackson's first Vice-President. Douglas, of course, bore one 
of the most famous of all Scottish names. It is amusing that, al- 
though Winfield Scott was the last full-fledged Whig candidate 
for President (1852), he was not of the covenanting breed of 
Caledonian, whence came the Jacksonians, but was descended 


from a follower of the Pretender who fled to America after Cul- 
loden in 1746. We would not wish to push the ethnic thesis 
too far. Henry Clay, Lincoln's beau ideal of a statesman, was 
a leader of the "war hawks" of 1812 along with Calhoun. Mani- 
fest sectional interests frequently make the quest for subtler in- 
fluences superfluous. It is a fact of some impressiveness, however, 
that from Washington to Lincoln, the Federalist- Whig-Republi- 
can presidents are exclusively of English ancestry. 

In the light of this fact and that of a contrary quality in the 
opposite party, it is not surprising to learn that the nativism flour- 
ishing in the decades before the Civil War was largely "old Eng- 
lish stockism" and made its appeal mainly to groups that were 
traditionally Whig. When Fillmore, the last Whig President, ran 
again in 1856, it was not only as candidate of the moribund 
Whigs but of the "Americans" i.e., Know-Nothings. One of the 
great accomplishments of the Republicans in 1860 was in assimilat- 
ing, for the most part, both the old-line Whigs and the Know- 
Nothings of the free states. This, even more than the split among 
the Democrats, was the key to their victory. The foregoing also 
makes intelligible the fact that it was the Democratic party which 
in the forties and thereafter welcomed the floods of Irish into 
its fold. These Irish did not, to say the least, detract from the 
anti-British feelings of the older Jacksonians in the party. They 
probably did contribute to minimizing the older anti-episco- 
pal feelings, and made the animus more exclusively ethnic. Or, 
if religious feelings continued to play a role, they did so by mak- 
ing the Democratic party more hospitable to Catholics, while the 
nativism which weighed heavily upon the opposition took on an 
increasingly anti-Catholic bias. Lincoln wrote to his old friend 
Speed in the summer of 1855: 

I am not a Know-Nothing. That is certain. How could I be? 
How can any one who abhors the oppression of negroes, be 
in favor of degrading classes of white people? Our progress 
in degeneracy appears to me to be pretty rapid. As a nation, 
we began by declaring that "all men are created equal." We 
now practically read it "all men are created equal, except 
negroes." When the Know-Nothings get control, it will read 
"all men are created equal, except negroes, and foreigners, 
and Catholics" When it comes to this I should prefer emi- 
grating to some country where they make no pretence of lov- 


ing liberty to Russia, for instance, where despotism can be 
taken pure, and without the base alloy of hypocrisy. 1 

What has been insufficiently noticed in this widely quoted pas- 
sage is that Lincoln, in writing to the man who was once his 
closest personal friend, should find it necessary to make such an 
elaborate disavowal of anti-foreign and anti-Catholic prejudice. It 
suggests how common this charge must have been against old- 
line Whigs. And one must not forget that this, Lincoln's only 
thoroughgoing written denunciation of Know-Nothingism, was in 
a personal private letter. On July 21, 1860, Lincoln addressed 
a letter to Abram Jonas, a prominent Jewish attorney of Quincy, 
Illinois. In it Lincoln gives a circumstantial denial of ever having 
stopped at a Know-Nothing lodge in Quincy. But he ends with 
these words: "And now a word of caution. Our adversaries think 
they can gain a point, if they could force me to openly deny 
the charge, by which some degree of offence would be given to 
the Americans. For this reason it must not publicly appear that 
I am paying any attention to the charge." 8 

Lincoln wanted and expected the Know-Nothing vote, but it 
was no indiscriminate desire that motivated him. There was a kin- 
ship between the roots of nativism and the roots of the anti-slavery 
movement, as there was between both of these and the temper- 
ance movement The mid-nineteenth century witnessed a whole 
host of such "reform" movements, and the movement against 
slavery was hardly more virulent or fraught with more political 
consequences until its climactic phase than the movements 
against liquor and foreigners. In many cases the crusade against 
liquor and the crusade against Irishmen ( and, to a lesser extent, 
Germans, who also had a reputation for bibulousness ) tended to 
merge into one. The groups that warred against liquor tended 
also to war against slavery. Lincoln took the stump against liquor 
before he did so against slavery. As the slavery question became 
his overriding concern he became silent on the liquor question, 
particularly as German immigration came to swell the Republi- 
can ranks. But he served cold water to the committee that notified 
him of his nomination for President. It would have been extremely 
difficult for Lincoln to attack the temperance movement or the 
nativist movement without dividing the forces of the anti-slavery 

The abolitionist movement in America, like the anti-liquor 


movement, was in large measure an offshoot of similar movements 
in Great Britain. The dynamic force animating both in Britain 
was the evangelical movement among the dissenting sects. 
Abolitionism in particular spread to America with the spread of 
evangelism and was thus strongly identified with radical Protes- 
tantism. The Irish reciprocated the scorn of the temperance 
reformers and the nativists by hating them for their English 
affinities and their Protestantism, as they in turn were hated for 
their popery and alleged addiction to drink. Thus the Irish tended 
also to hate abolitionism as something English and Protestant and 
therefore intolerant of themselves. It is worth mentioning, al- 
though it would be difficult to measure its significance, that slavery 
was not held to be contrary to natural law, according to the most 
famous of Catholic doctors, Thomas Aquinas, while it was cate- 
gorically denounced as such by the English Protestant John Locke, 
whose Second Treatise of Civil Government so largely inspired 
the famous phrases of the Declaration of Independence. 

Douglas, we have said, was a great hero of the Irish and, we 
might add, was as well known to be a hard drinker as Lincoln 
was notorious for his teetotaling! Moreover, Douglas's second 
marriage after the death of his first wife was to the daughter of 
a prominent Maryland Catholic family, and the two sons of his 
first marriage were educated in a Catholic school and eventually 
adopted their stepmother's faith. But Douglas showed his political 
colors in nothing more revealingly than when he twisted the 
British lion's tail. 

We return now to Douglas's Texas annexation speech and find 
that the peroration has almost no apparent connection with what 
has preceded it, although it should not surprise the reader of the 
foregoing paragraphs, as it assuredly did not surprise Douglas's 

Our federal system is admirably adapted to the whole con- 
tinent; and while I would not violate the laws of nations, 
nor treaty stipulations, nor in any manner tarnish the national 
honor, I would exert all legal and honorable means to drive 
Great Britain and the last vestiges of royal authority from the 
continent of North America, and extend the limits of the re- 
public from ocean to ocean. I would make this an ocean- 
bound republic, and have no more disputes about bounda- 
ries or red lines [i.e., British claims] upon the maps. 9 


If we ask what Britain had to do with Texas, we must remind 
ourselves that in the presidential election of the autumn (1848) 
preceding this speech Henry Clay and the Whigs had come to 
grief mainly upon the Texas annexation issue. The Democratic 
party rallied from the defeat of 1840 above all by espousing this 
issue and by linking it with the occupation of the whole of Oregon, 
all the way to 54'4o", thus balancing southern with northern ex- 
pansion. Clay's misfortune was due in large measure to his failure 
to appreciate how popular the annexation of Texas would be, 
even in the North. Here again the anti-British feeling of Jacksonian 
Democracy undoubtedly played a leading role, for the rumors 
of a threatened alliance of the Texans with the British, should 
annexation fail, seems to have acted as a great lever upon opinion. 
To the South, it meant the exposure of their "soft underbelly" 
to abolitionism, and the specter of the Canadian border, the 
sanctuary of fugitives, suddenly reproduced along the border of 
their densest slave populations. Slavery was not so firmly planted 
in Texas that it might not become more advantageous for Texans, 
if thrown upon the British, to substitute the free labor system. 
But in the Northwest the old anti-British feelings also stirred, for 
British power in Canada could have far greater strategic effect 
if it could be applied simultaneously from Texas. In the Northeast 
there was fear of a Texan tariff on American goods while British 
goods entered free. And so support for Texas's annexation was 
redoubled, both by the prospect of cutting off any flanking 
movement of British power to the south and by the simultaneous 
move further to offset British power to the north by the occupa- 
tion of Oregon. 

Although Douglas warmly supported Texas's annexation, as a 
northwestern Democrat he naturally espoused the cause of Ore- 
gon with even greater enthusiasm. Here is an extract from an 
Oregon speech. The repetitiveness is worthy of inclusion because 
it indicates how incessantly he hammered at the anti-British 

It therefore becomes us to put this nation in a state of defense; 
and, when we are told that this will lead to war, all I have 
to say is this, violate no treaty stipulations, nor any principle 
of the law of nations; preserve the honor and integrity of 
the country, but, at the same time, assert our right to the 
last inch [of Oregon, that is], and then, if war comes, let it 


come. We may regret the necessity which produced it, but 
when it does come, I would administer to our citizens Han- 
nibal's oath of eternal enmity, and not terminate the war 
until the question was settled forever. I would blot out the 
lines on the map which now mark our national boundaries 
on this continent, and make the area of liberty as broad as 
the continent itself. I would not suffer petty rival republics 
to grow up here, engendering jealousy of each other, and 
interfering with each other's domestic affairs, and continually 
endangering their peace. I do not wish to go beyond the great 
ocean beyond those boundaries which the God of nature 
has marked out, I would limit myself only by that boundary 
which is so clearly defined by nature. 10 

To "drive Great Britain and the last vestiges of royal authority 
from the continent of North America," to "make this an ocean- 
bound republic," to render "the area of liberty as broad as the 
continent," and not to suffer "petty rival republics to grow up 
here" was a policy of a scope and import of the first magnitude 
and one which Douglas was to pursue with fierce tenacity and 

Let us reflect on this broad purpose. Lincoln is justly famous for 
preserving the Union to which Douglas was no less dedicated. 
Lincoln in 1861 refused to allow this Union to be divided into 
"petty rival republics," but we must credit Douglas, and all those 
others who espoused the cause of Manifest Destiny, with the 
vision and determination that created the continental Union that 
Lincoln finally saved. In giving this credit we must, in fairness, 
also remember that Lincoln and his party (i.e., the Whigs) did 
not have such a vision. They warned, as with the voice of Webster, 
that territorial expansion would undermine the principles of a 
free republican government. The annexation of Texas alone meant 
the certain addition of one slave state and the possible addition 
of five slave states, since the annexation resolution permitted 
Texas's future division. The compromise with the original slave- 
holding states, which added to the number of free inhabitants 
three fifths of the slaves in calculating representation in the House 
of Representatives, would prove a monstrosity if it were not 
sharply circumscribed, said Webster. "But," he added, 

there is another consideration of vastly more general impor- 
tance . . . because it affects all the States, free and slave- 


holding; and it is, that States formed out of territories thus 
thinly populated . . . break up ... the intended relation 
between the Senate and the House . . . The Senate, aug- 
mented by these new Senators coming from States where 
there are few people, becomes an odious oligarchy. It holds 
power without any adequate constituency ... it is but 
"borough-mongering" upon a large scale ... I hold it to be 
... an outrage upon all the principles of popular republi- 
can government . . , u 

Again we must be struck by the fact that, just as Douglas saw 
clearly the implications of the technological revolution for trans- 
portation, so he also saw that the new West to be carved out of 
Mexico would not long remain the few sparse settlements that 
were there then but would rapidly become the home of teeming 
millions. By 1850 the miracle of California showed that the Far 
West was no more apt to change the representative character of 
the Senate than the old Northwest or Southwest. Meanwhile, as 
we have already noted, the mighty influx from Europe into the 
free states was making the argument against the three-fifths 
clause highly abstract. 

Douglas's intention to extend the area of liberty was not an 
idle one either: the American constitutional system knew no way 
to acquire "provinces," in the old Roman sense. Congress had 
power to admit new states, and all lands acquired were to be 
presumed states, in statu nascendi. Moreover, the Constitution 
knew no way to admit states except upon the footing of full 
equality. Just because of this assurance of equality of old with 
new states, American imperialism had a moral quality unlike any 
other imperialism the world had ever known. What if California 
and the other Mexican cessions were in reality a conqueror's booty 
(not that Douglas would have admitted so much)? Was not the 
admission of these regions into the Union a guarantee to them 
of a republican form of government? The political condition of 
Mexico, as Douglas viewed it, was one of virtual and perpetual 
anarchy. The United States, in the Monroe Doctrine, had warned 
European powers that they might not re-establish dominion on 
any soil in the New World from which they had been expelled. 
To stand by the doctrine, however, meant to accept responsibility 
for the political stability of the regions from which we insisted 
others must be excluded. The political credo announced in the 


Declaration of Independence, it should be remembered, asserted 
a right against anarchy no less than against despotism. TThe acces- 
sions of parts of Mexico to the United States did not mean a 
denial of self-government to the inhabitants of these regions but 
the first effective assurance of self-government they would have 
had. Suppose there was some temporary distortion in our federal 
system resulting from these accessions. Was the risk not worth it? 
Douglas sensed the drift of world politics toward massive ag- 
gregations. He did not, like Tocqueville, foresee a bi-polarity 
centering in the United States and Russia, but he did see that 
the old European balance of power would not endure indefinitely. 
The great competitor was Britain, whose star of empire was rising 
toward its zenith. Nothing less than complete domination of the 
Western Hemisphere would assure this country's future. Expan- 
sion was necessary, not only as a solution of the leading domestic 
question but as the policy, both morally right and politically 
necessary, of giving political freedom the power of survival in a 
predatory and hostile world. 

Of all Webster's arguments against expansion, the most telling 
has to do with slavery. Webster tacitly rejected Douglas's claim 
that expansion would make the area of liberty as broad as the 
continent, because he foresaw the outspreading of the institution 
of chattel slavery. Not the three-fifths clause nor the perversion 
of the Senate from its representative basis, but the arming of 
the interest in chattel slavery was the true danger. In the 1837 
speech against annexing Texas the following classic passage oc- 
curred, a passage often repeated in later years and to a considera- 
ble extent paraphrased by Lincoln in his great Peoria speech of 

Gentlemen, we all see that, by whomsoever possessed, Texas 
is likely to be a slave-holding country; and I frankly avow my 
entire unwillingness to do anything that shall extend the 
slavery of the African race on this continent, or add other 
slave-holding States to the Union. When I say that I regard 
slavery in itself as a great moral, social, and political evil, 
I only use language which has been adopted by distinguished 
men, themselves citizens of slave-holding States. I shall do 
nothing, therefore, to favor or encourage its further extension. 
We have slavery already amongst us. The Constitution found 


it in the Union; it recognized it and gave it solemn guaranties. 
To the full extent of these guaranties we are all bound, in 
honor, in justice, and by the Constitution. All the stipulations 
contained in the Constitution in favor of the slave-holding 
States which are already in the Union ought to be fulfilled 
. . . Slavery, as it exists in the States, is beyond the reach of 
Congress. It is a concern of the States themselves; they have 
never submitted it to Congress, and Congress has no rightful 
power over it ... 

But when we come to speak of admitting new States, the 
subject assumes an entirely different aspect. Our rights and 
duties are then both different. 

The free States, and all the States, are then at liberty to 
accept or reject. When it is proposed to bring new members 
into this political partnership, the old members have a right 
to say on what terms such new partners are to come in, and 
what they are to bring along with them. In my opinion, the 
people of the United States will not consent to bring into 
the Union a new, vastly extensive, and slave-holding country, 
large enough for a half a dozen or a dozen States. In my opin- 
ion they ought not to consent to it ... On the general 
question of slavery, a great portion of the community is 
already strongly excited. The subject has not only attracted 
attention as a question of politics, but it has struck a far 
deeper toned chord. It has arrested the religious feelings of 
the country; it has taken strong hold on the consciences of 
men. He is a rash man, indeed, and little conversant with 
human nature, and especially has he a very erroneous esti- 
mate of the character of the people of this country, who 
supposes that a feeling of this kind is to be trifled with or 
despised. It will assuredly cause itself to be respected. It 
may be reasoned with, it may be made willing ... to fulfill 
all existing engagements and all existing duties . . . But to 
coerce it into silence, to endeavor to restrain its free expres- 
sion . . . should this be attempted, I know nothing, even in 
the Constitution or in the Union itself, which would not be 
endangered by the explosion which might follow. 

I believe it to be for the interest and happiness of the whole 
Union to remain as it is, without diminution and without 
addition. 12 


Without at present considering the intrinsic merit of what Web- 
ster has said, we call attention to what he has omitted; namely, the 
alternative danger, the expansion of British influence. The elec- 
tion of 1844, as noted above, was to suggest that anti-British 
as well as anti-slavery feeling was a deep and durable element 
in popular opinion. In truth, popular opinion was not altogether 
consistent with respect to the compatibility of all the objects it 
wished to achieve, as it seldom is. The task of statesmanship, 
in part, is to clarify the alternatives that are before the country 
and to compel the people to a genuine and not a spurious or 
illusory choice. While Webster gave ear and voice to the deep- 
toned chord of anti-slavery opinion, Douglas beat the tribal 
drums of anti-British feeling. While Douglas prodded Southerners 
to follow his expansionist policies, by reminding them that Britain 
was the home of abolitionism, Webster "wished that this country 
should exhibit to the nations of the earth the example of a rich, 
and powerful republic, which is not possessed by a spirit of 
aggrandizement." Yet Webster tacitly accepted the proposition 
that the spread of British influence south of our borders would 
be wholesome rather than harmful, precisely because the spread 
of British influence would be likely to arrest the spread of slavery. 
It is difficult to escape the feeling that, as between Websterian 
Whiggery and, later, Lincolnian Republicanism and Douglas 
Democracy a profound difference, perhaps the profoundest dif- 
ference, lay in the differing relative estimate placed upon slavery 
on the one hand and the British Empire on the other as threats 
to the future of American freedom. For Douglas, Britain was the 
great enemy, and differences over slavery had to be subordinated 
to meet her; for Webster, as for Lincoln, the enemy was the 
slave power. 

There is an astonishing disparity between the seriousness with 
which Lincoln's contemporaries heard his warning in 1858 of a 
danger that they might wake up one morning to find slavery 
lawful in all the states, old as well as new, North as well as 
South, and the unbelief, not to say contempt, with which that 
warning has been treated by recent historians. This has been 
paralleled, if not quite equaled, by the treatment of Douglas's 
conviction that the future welfare of the country demanded an 
exclusion of Britain from North America, if not from the Western 
Hemisphere. Except for noting his advocacy of Manifest Destiny, 
even Douglas's sympathetic biographers have given short shrift 


to his long Senate speeches on foreign policy. Yet there is every 
reason to believe that Douglas himself regarded them as of the 
utmost importance and that, as senator, his responsibilities in the 
field of foreign affairs were not surpassed in dignity and gravity 
by any others. Douglas was, moreover, the recognized chieftain 
of a movement known as "Young America/' a movement largely 
unofficial and unsanctioned by himself but devoted both to ad- 
vancing his presidential prospects and to asserting a more vigor- 
ous foreign policy than that of the "old fogies" of the party. 

That Douglas's warnings against British guile and greed had a 
deep response can hardly be doubted, and we must try to com- 
prehend why what seems so unsubstantial a fear today did not 
seem so then. That a war to drive "the last vestiges of royal 
authority" from North America was a supreme aim of policy for 
Douglas, we have seen. But it is worth remembering that in 1861 
William H. Seward, Lincoln's Secretary of State and the leading 
Republican in the nation until the nomination of Lincoln, pro- 
posed measures aimed at provoking war with several European 
powers, measures which must in fact have been directed mainly 
against Britain. 13 Seward's motive, presumably, was to arouse 
national feelings as a means to ending the secession crisis. Yet 
he must have seen the same potentialities in an anti-British policy 
that Douglas did. 

To appreciate why Douglas and countless others felt as they 
did we must recapture something of the international outlook 
of the mid-nineteenth century. Although it was an "age of 
progress," actual progress toward political freedom elsewhere in 
the world, progress toward realizing the rights proclaimed in the 
Declaration of Independence was extremely doubtful and uncer- 
tain. Webster said in 1824: 

It cannot be denied that the great political question of this 
age is that between absolute and regulated governments . . . 
The main controversy is between that absolute rule, which, 
while it promises to govern well, means, nevertheless, to gov- 
ern without control, and that constitutional system which 
restrains sovereign discretion, and asserts that society may 
claim as matter of right some effective power in the establish- 
ment of the laws which are to regulate it. The spirit of the 
times sets with a most powerful current in favor of these 
last mentioned opinions. It is opposed, however, whenever 


and wherever it shows itself, by certain of the great poten- 
tates of Europe . . , 14 

Webster spoke these words in support of a resolution of sympathy 
with the embattled Greek revolutionists fighting for freedom 
against their Turkish oppressors. In their fight, the Greeks met 
the active hostility of the Christian crowned heads of the Holy 
Alliance as well as their infidel imperial masters. 

While the "spirit of the times" may have been on the side of 
freedom, its prospects before the American Civil War could 
hardly have been called bright. The downfall of the first Napo- 
leon had ushered in a period of intensely reactionary government. 
Napoleon himself had done much to discredit those principles 
of the French Revolution which were so nearly identical with 
the principles of the American Revolution. When the spirit of 
liberty again took heart, the members of the Holy Alliance, learn- 
ing nothing and forgetting nothing, undertook to suppress it by 
every and all means. The revolutions of 1830 and 1848 proved 
largely abortive. If the Bourbons were finally run out of France, 
the Second Republic nonetheless proved short-lived; and what- 
ever enlightenment was to be attributed to Napoleon III did 
not include much political freedom. Meanwhile, British diplo- 
macy and British power were frequently exerted in favor of some 
of the worst and most oppressive governments in putting down 
the efforts of their subjects to assert their natural rights. That 
Britain herself, after the fright of Napoleon subsided, moved 
slowly but steadily down the path toward constitutional democ- 
racy was a fact neither dear nor unequivocal in these years. The 
full meaning of the Reform Act of 1832 was not visible immedi- 
ately at so great a distance. The social system of Great Britain 
was enormously unegalitarian. "In those days," said Disraeli, 
"England was for the few and for the very few." It was hardly 
the home of republican freedom as known to men like Douglas 
and Lincoln, who, without wealth or birth or influential connec- 
tions, made their way to the highest positions. Briefly and crudely 
we may say that, prior to the Third Republic, France's erratic 
progress toward equality was not accompanied by much liberty; 
that Britain exhibited a good deal of liberty without much 
equality; while in the United States alone were liberty and 
equality substantial realities of social and political existence. 

Within this mid-century horizon Lincoln and Douglas would 


have agreed that the American republic had a unique responsi- 
bility, that it held in trust the cause of republican freedom for 
all mankind. Americans could not view with indifference the 
struggle for liberty of men anywhere in the world. Lincoln would 
surely have agreed fully with the following passage from Doug- 
las's Senate speech (December 11, 1851) on the Kossuth resolu- 

I do not deem it material whether the reception of Governor 
Kossuth will give offence to the crowned heads of Europe 
... for I well know that they will not be pleased with any 
action of this republic which gives encouragement to Euro- 
pean movements favorable to liberal institutions ... Sir, I 
know of no principle of the law of nations that deprives a 
republic of the right of expressing its cordial sympathy 
in all movements tending to the establishment of free princi- 
ples throughout the world. I hold it is our duty to demon- 
strate our heartfelt sympathy and profound admiration, by 
every act which is appropriate to the occasion and the 
subject-matter. It is due to our own character, in vindication 
of the history of our revolutionary struggles, which resulted 
in the establishment of republican principles upon this con- 
tinent. 15 

For Lincoln had spoken earlier, of the right of revolution, as 

Any people anywhere, being inclined and having the power, 
have the right to rise up and shake off the existing govern- 
ment, and form a new one that suits them better. This is a 
most valuable, a most sacred right a right which, we hope 
and believe, is to liberate the world. 16 

But the classic statement of how the American example was to 
sow the seeds of revolution throughout the world is Webster's 
famous Hiilsemann letter, vindicating the action of the American 
government in sending an "observer" to Hungary, an observer 
whom the Austrians accused of actively abetting the patriot cause. 
Writing in 1850 as Secretary of State, Webster said he freely 
admitted that 

in proportion as these extraordinary events appeared to have 
their origin in those great ideas of responsible and popular 


government, on which the American constitutions themselves 
are wholly founded, they could not but command the warm 
sympathy of the people of this country . . . They could not, 
if they desired it, suppress either the thoughts or the hopes 
which arise in men's minds, in other countries, from contem- 
plating their successful example of free government . . . 
True, indeed, it is, that the prevalence on the other continent 
of sentiments favorable to republican liberty is the result of 
the reaction of America upon Europe; and the source and 
center of this reaction has doubtless been, and now is, in 
these United States. 17 

For Webster and Lincoln, however, the central responsibility of 
America in advancing what Lincoln distinctly referred to as a 
world revolution was to inspire the hearts of men, to hold forth 
to them the assurance that a republic, a political order devoted 
to the freedom and happiness of all its members, was not only 
possible but actual. European liberals might look to America for 
inspiration and sympathy and, where they succeeded, prompt 
recognition. But America ought not to jeopardize this precious 
example of republican freedom by rash adventures. Its primary 
action upon the international scene was to be moral, not political. 
At this point there is a sharply differing emphasis of far-reaching 
importance in Douglas's speeches. Douglas did not, of course, 
think we could actually rescue the Hungarian patriots from the 
clutches of the Russian and Austrian emperors. But he clearly 
favored a more belligerent tone in all pronouncements upon the 
conflict abroad between liberal and reactionary forces. For Doug- 
las, the test of republican purity and fidelity was to be found more 
in the vigor with which we asserted ourselves against anti- 
republican forces abroad than in any introspective concern. 
Lincoln, on the contrary, expanding Webster's theme, summoned 
his countrymen to the great crusade which began in 1854, as fol- 

Our republican robe is soiled, and trailed in the dust. Let 
us repurify it. Let us turn and wash it white, in the spirit, 
if not the blood, of the Revolution . . . Let us re-adopt the 
Declaration of Independence, and with it, the practices, and 
policy, which harmonize with it ... If we do this, we shall 
not only have saved the Union; but we shall have so saved 
it, as to make, and to keep it, forever worthy of the saving. 


We shall have so saved it, that the succeeding millions of 
free happy people, the world over [our italics], shall rise up, 
and call us blessed, to the latest generations. 18 * 

Because the Kansas-Nebraska Act, with its implied rejection of 
the Declaration of Independence, "deprives our republican exam- 
ple of its just influence in the worldenables the enemies of free 
institutions, with plausibility, to taunt us as hypocrites," it was 
a blow at America's foreign policy, no less than against its true 
domestic policy, according to Lincoln. With Douglas, however, 
the uncompromising insistence upon purity finds a no less 
vehement but characteristically different expression. In the same 
speech on the Kossuth resolutions, from which we have quoted 
above, Douglas spoke as follows: 

Sir, something has been said about an alliance with England, 
to restrain the march of Russia over the European continent. 
I am free to say that I desire no alliance with England, or 
with any other crowned head. I am not willing to acknowl- 
edge that America needs England as an ally to maintain the 
principles of our government. Nor am I willing to go to the 
rescue of England to save her from the power of the Autocrat, 
until she assimilates her institutions to ours. Hers is a half-way 
house between despotism and republicanism. She is respon- 
sible, as much as any power in Europe, for the failure of the 
revolutionary movements which have occurred within the 
last four years. English diplomacy, English intrigue, and Eng- 
lish perfidy, put down the revolution in Sicily and in Italy, 
and was the greatest barrier to its success even in Hungary 
... I am utterly averse to an alliance with her to sustain her 
monarch, her nobles, and her privileged classes. She must 
sustain her constitutional monarchy, even against absolutism 
without receiving aid from republican America with my con- 
sent, and especially so long as she condemns to imprison- 
ment and transportation for life the noble Irish patriots, 
whose only crime consisted in attempting that for which the 
great Hungarian is now idolized by the English people. She 
must do justice to Ireland, and the Irish patriots in exile, 
and to the masses of her own people, by relieving them from 
the oppressive taxation imposed to sustain the privileged 
classes, and by adopting republican institutions, before she 
can have my sympathy, much less my aid, even against Rus- 


sia. I wish no alliance with monarchs. No republican move- 
ment will ever succeed so long as the people put their trust 
in princes. The fatal error committed in Italy, Germany, in 
France, wherever the experiment was tried, consisted in 
placing a prince at the head of the popular movement. The 
princes all sympathized with the dynasties from which they 
were descended, and seized the first opportunity to produce 
a reaction, and to betray the people into the hands of their 
oppressors. There is reason to believe that much of this was 
accomplished through British diplomacy and intrigue. What 
more natural? The power of the British Government is in the 
hands of the princes and nobility. Their sympathies are all 
with the privileged classes of other countries, in every move- 
ment which does not affect the immediate interests of their 
own kingdom. Republicanism has nothing to hope, therefore, 
from England so long as she maintains her existing govern- 
ment, and preserves her present policy. I repeat, I desire 
no alliance with England. We require no assistance from her, 
and will yield none to her until she does justice to her own 
people. The peculiar position of our country requires that we 
should have an American policy [the italics are Douglas's] 
in our foreign relations, based upon the principles of our 
own government, and adapted to the spirit of the age. We 
should sympathize with every liberal movement recognize 
the independence of all Republics form commercial treaties, 
and open diplomatic relations with them protest against all 
infractions of the laws of nations, and hold ourselves ready 
to do whatever our duty may require when a case shall 
arise. 1 

k 18b 

A present-day reader of the foregoing passage must be struck 
by the resemblance between what Douglas calls an "American 
policy" and the foreign policy advocated by the movement called 
"America First" prior to World War II. The persistence of this 
theme in American politics is astonishing. In both centuries we 
see a refusal to join Britain in opposing a threatened destruction 
of the European balance of power by an autocratic continental 
power. In both cases there is visible the resentment of non-Anglo- 
Saxon nationalities against the idea of war for the sake of British 
interests, and the conviction of a radical opposition between 
British and American interests. There is, moreover, the peculiar 


insistence upon the direct moral claim of American principles of 
government upon the governments and peoples of Europe, 
combined with a kind of revulsion from the entire European scene 
and a withdrawal of American diplomacy, of such power as 
America could exert through alliances upon that scene in behalf 
of liberal movements. And in both cases there is the same insist- 
ence that America's true reaction to the failure of European 
liberalism is to be found in establishing an incontestable hegemony 
in the Western Hemisphere. There is, moreover, a difference 
between the foregoing policy and the classic "isolationism" of 
Washington's and Jefferson's neutrality policy and of its quasi- 
reaffirmation in the Monroe Doctrine. ITie earlier policies were 
meant to secure the infant republic from rash adventures, from 
overcommitments which might needlessly endanger our security. 
Douglas's policy, on the contrary, looked toward involvement, be- 
cause it was a summons to a crusade to expel European powers 
from the New World. 

For Douglas, Britain's "half-way house between despotism and 
republicanism" is the analogue of Lincoln's "house divided." When 
Webster in 1823 said the greatest question of the age was that 
between absolute and limited government, he thought "whether 
the form of government shall be that of limited monarchy, with 
more or less mixture of hereditary power, or wholly elective or 
representative, may perhaps be considered as subordinate." For 
Douglas, however, this "subordinate" question was paramount. 
Lincoln, in the letter to Speed, spoke of going to Russia, where 
he could "take his despotism pure, without the base alloy of 
hypocrisy.*' Lincoln would not tolerate the impurity represented 
by successive exceptions to the universal creed of the Declaration 
of Independence. Douglas's defenders have frequently contrasted 
his flexibility, as represented by his policy of allowing diversity in 
the domestic institutions of the states, with Lincoln's doctrinal 
rigidity. Lincoln did oppose Douglas's popular sovereignty, be- 
cause it countenanced, in theory at least, the spread of slavery; 
and Lincoln did demand the ultimate extinction of slavery. But 
while Lincoln looked to the assimilation of slave to free institutions 
within the United States, Douglas demanded that Great Britain 
"assimilate her institutions to ours"! Each man, we might say, 
called for the elimination of a divided house and denounced what 
he believed hypocritical betrayal of liberal principles; but whereas 


W 57 

Linooln saw the fatal division and betrayal at home, Douglas saw 
them concentrated in "perfidious Albion." 

In his Texas and Oregon speeches, one could say that Douglas 
was simply voicing Jacksonian prejudices, but by 1850 experi- 
ence had given those prejudices if they were such a new 
dimension and a new plausibility. The revolutions of 1848 had 
largely failed; bloodshed, persecution, and oppression seemed 
more than ever the fate of European patriots and liberals. But 
of all events, none left a deeper mark upon American politics 
than the Irish famine. Here was a human catastrophe of gigantic 
proportions. The history of American Negro slavery disclosed no 
such physical suffering as the starvation and deaths in vast 
numbers of the Irish peasantry. Nor is it likely that the enforced 
separation of families, frequently accounted the worst evil of 
slavery, equaled in a hundred years the separations caused by 
the enforced emigration from Ireland. That the sufferings of the 
Irish were attributable to British misrule was widely conceded. 
And that Douglas, as the spokesman of the Irish in America 
should, in the scale of human abominations, subordinate the op- 
pression of Negroes to that of the people of his own constituents 
is hardly a paradox of democratic government 

Certainly it was no mere chauvinism to believe at mid-century 
that the political structure of the Old World was too rotten to 
expect any great transplantation to it of the blessings of the New. 
The continued growth of the New World, the viability of whose 
free institutions was demonstrated fact, was the true aim of policy. 

I insist that there is a difference, a wide difference [said 
Douglas], between the system of policy which should be pur- 
sued in America and that which would be applicable to 
Europe. Europe is antiquated, decrepit, tottering on the 
verge of dissolution. When you visit her, the objects which 
enlist your highest admiration are the relics of past greatness; 
the broken columns erected to departed power . . . The 
choicest products of her classic soil . . . bring up memories 
of the dead, but inspire no hope for the living! Here every- 
thing is fresh blooming, expanding, advancing ... Sir, the 
statesman who would shape the policy of America by Euro- 
pean models, has failed to perceive the antagonism which 


exists in the relative position, history, institutions in every- 
thing pertaining to the Old and the New World. 19 

The foregoing is from a speech in the special Senate session 
summoned by the incoming President, Pierce, in March 1853. The 
debate on foreign policy which had marked the closing months 
of the Thirty-second Congress, the last under Fillmore and a Whig 
administration, had been resumed. A controversy had arisen with 
Britain concerning the interpretation of the Clayton-Bulwer 
Treaty, which had been signed and ratified in the spring of 1850. 
This treaty was probably the most unpopular of all our inter- 
national agreements, at least until Yalta achieved the peak of its 
ill fame. We shall shortly hear from Douglas precisely why this 
was so. We should note, however, that it was negotiated and 
signed amid the gravest internal crisis through which the nation 
had hitherto passed. It was a Whig treaty, presented to a 
Democratic Senate, and yet passed by a vote of 42 to 11. This 
suggests that Whigs and "old fogy" Democrats alike believed in 
a prudent abatement of national assertiveness while the domestic 
peril lasted. This was to be Lincoln's view in the next decade, 
but it was certainly not Douglas's view, then or ever. The delib- 
erations of 1850 were secret, but Douglas tells us in 1853 what 
he had said before, and these views are expanded on other 
subsequent occasions of record. 

But here is another point of chronology which must command 
notice. Between Douglas's two major speeches in 1852-53 on for- 
eign affairs there occurred the last unsuccessful attempt to pass 
a bill to organize Nebraska. It passed the House by an over- 
whelming margin and failed in the Senate by being laid on the 
table in the closing hours of the sessionin fact, in the early 
hours of the morning of March 3. This bill, of which we shall 
take further notice later, was warmly endorsed by Douglas, 
although it had not a word casting doubt upon, much less repeal- 
ing, the Missouri Compromise. The Nebraska bill of 1853, 
however, did not command a fraction of the attention of Douglas 
(or of anyone else) that its famed successor did; his preoccupa- 
tion this year was far more with foreign affairs. We shall later 
expound the view that the repeal provision in 1854 was an 
aberration from Douglas's true policy; that he never intended 
it, but that a peculiar set of unhappy circumstances forced him 
to profess to have intended it, after the fact, and so defend it. 


The storm that broke over it was to place Douglas's policy in 
a false perspective, subordinating a major to a minor theme. He 
was never again able to push the foreign policy he so dearly 
believed in, although he never abandoned the attempt 

We would venture as a hypothesis that Douglas, at the end 
of the Thirty-second Congress, while the lame ducks awaited 
the return of the Democrats to power in 1853, wished to set the 
stage for the reassertion of Manifest Destiny. The platforms of 
both parties in 1852 had asserted that the Compromise of 1850 
would be regarded as a definitive settlement of sectional differ- 
ences. Pierce, in his inaugural address, gave grounds for hoping 
that Folk's policies would be resumed. But in the following year 
the Democratic party was rent by internecine feuds and Pierce 
disclosed his utter incompetence in dealing with them. What the 
country needed desperately was a policyand leadership. The 
Whig party had immolated itself in the fires of sectionalism by 
taking the lead in, and throwing its weight behind, the Compro- 
mise of 1850. The Democratic party appeared to be disintegrating 
while in power. A vigorous policy with other nations seemed 
out of the question. Congress could take the lead in forging 
domestic policy, as it could not in the foreign sphere. Douglas 
therefore undertook to exert a leadership in 1854 u P n an issue 
he could hope to control through his place in the party and in 
the Senate. That Douglas was playing the "presidential game" 
is neither doubtful nor discreditable; what is important is its 
significance and success for Douglas, whether as a Democrat or, 
as was possible in 1858, as Republican, would have meant the 
reassertion of the primacy of foreign policy. As we shall later 
show, Lincoln always understood this, and no passages in the 
joint debates are more meaningful than those in which Lincoln 
places his own construction upon Douglas's ulterior motives in 
the external sphere. For this reason it is essential, before turning 
to the language of the debates, to hear what Douglas said on 
foreign affairs in 1852-53, in the interval between the domestic 
crisis of 1850 and its renewal in 1854. 

The Clayton-Bulwer Treaty, like that other Whig treaty nego- 
tiated in 1842 by Webster and Lord Ashburton, was a settlement 
of a broad area of irritating and ulcerating differences with Great 
Britain, differences which could easily have led to war but were 
as easily removed from that dangerous condition as soon as the 


principle of compromise was accepted. The 1842 agreement had 
settled the long-festering dispute over the northeast boundary, 
between Maine and Canada, a dispute which seemed hopelessly 
irreconcilable under Democratic administrations but was almost 
magically dissipated by the diplomacy of Webster and the con- 
genial Ashburton. In 1850 the aftermath of the Mexican War 
brought not only the domestic sectional controversy but a serious 
clash of British and American interests in Central America. In 
the words of Allan Nevins: 

California had no sooner been acquired than a large emigra- 
tion began to pour across the Panama and Nicaraguan routes. 
The building of a canal then seemed a much easier enter- 
prise than it actually was, and most Americans inevitably 
felt that it ought to be under their own control. Great Britain 
for her part exercised sovereignty over Belize, or British 
Honduras, asserted a protectorate over the savages who in- 
habited the so-called Mosquito Coast, and took an interest 
in the islands of the region. The British had the largest ocean 
commerce in the world, and no small part of it would pass 
through any Isthmian canal which was constructed. 20 

The heart of the ensuing treaty was a stipulation that neither 
Britain nor the United States would "ever obtain for itself any 
exclusive control over any ship canal," but that both would 
protect any private company which might undertake to build 
it. It was also agreed that "the parties owning or constructing the 
same shall impose no other charges nor conditions of traffic than 
the aforesaid governments shall approve as equitable," and that 
"the said canals or railways [shall be] open to the citizens and 
subjects of Great Britain and the United States on equal terms, 
[and] shall also be open on like terms to the citizens and subjects 
of every other state." 21 The "self-denying ordinance" upon which 
the storm of criticism mainly broke, however, was the following: 

The governments of the United States and Great Britain 
hereby declare that neither one nor the other will ever . . . 
occupy, or fortify, or colonize, or assume, or exercise, any 
dominion over Nicaragua, Costa Rica, the Mosquito Coast, 
or any part of Central America . . . 

The Clayton-Bulwer Treaty, in short, was founded upon the as- 
sumption that Anglo-British friendship was the durable basis 


upon which the international system of the New World might be 
built As Clayton wrote to Bulwer at the time, "We have pro- 
duced a new era in the history of the relations between Great 
Britain and the United States. We have bound together these 
two great kindred nations as joint pioneers and partners in spread- 
ing the blessings of commerce and civilization.'* 22 Disillusionment 
with the treaty set in almost immediately for Clayton, Webster, 
and the Whigs, as well as for Democrats. The Americans thought 
that the self-denying ordinance applied to present as well as 
prospective colonies, etc., while the British interpreted it to mean 
future ones only; in short, the British meant to retain all the 
strategic advantages of their existing bases in the vicinity of the 
Nicaraguan route. But whether the treaty froze existing British 
advantages in the region or gave us full equality, there can be 
no question that its Whig authors never looked for more than a 
full partnership in the area. 

The protectorate of the Mosquito Coast included more than 
half the area of Honduras and Nicaragua, on the Atlantic side. 
Britain's foothold here (in addition to full possession of Belize, 
or British Honduras) was, nominally, to prevent the Nicaraguans 
and others from exterminating the Mosquito Indians. In this situa- 
tion the Nicaraguans were quite willing to concede to Americans 
exclusive privileges in the region as an offset to British power. 
And Douglas wished to pay the British that sincerest form of 
flattery, imitation, by exploiting native weakness in order to estab- 
lish an American overlordship that would exclude the British as 
effectually as the British were in the habit of excluding others. Ac- 
cording to Douglas, speaking in the Senate on February 14, 1852, 
one Hise, Folk's charg6 d'affaires (under Buchanan's administra- 
tion of the State Department) had already negotiated a treaty 
with Nicaragua, giving this country exclusive and perpetual 
privileges to build and fortify a canal there, together with land 
grants for the establishment of free ports and towns at the termini 
of the interoceanic communications. That such a "treaty" would 
have been the prelude to another Texas, that the "colonists" would 
eventually have taken the country from the natives, Douglas was 
at no pains to deny or conceal Nor was Douglas unmindful that a 
treaty with Nicaragua, without a prior understanding with Great 
Britain, would hardly be worth the paper it was written on. Before 
the Clayton-Bulwer agreement the British had already obtained 


from the Nicaraguans navigation rights on the San Juan River 
entirely inconsistent with the privileges which were now to be 
bestowed on the Americans. 23 But here, as in the Oregon bound- 
ary controversy, Douglas only wanted a scrap of evidence to 
supply a claim under what he was pleased to call "international 
law," upon which extravagant demands might be based, demands 
serving to bring on war. Here are Douglas's main objections to 
the Clayton-Bulwer Treaty, in his own words: 

In the first place, I was unwilling to enter into treaty stipula- 
tions with Great Britain or any other European power in 
respect to the American continent, by the terms of which we 
should pledge the faith of this republic not to do in all coming 
time that which in the progress of events our interests, duty, 
and even safety may compel us to do. I have already said, 
and now repeat, that every article, clause, and provision of 
that treaty is predicated upon a virtual negation and repudia- 
tion of the Monroe Doctrine in relation to European coloni- 
zation on this continent. The article inviting any power on 
earth with which England and the United States are on 
terms of friendly intercourse to enter into similar stipula- 
tions, and which pledges the good offices of each, when 
requested by the other, to aid in the new negotiations with 
the other Central American states, and which pledges the 
good offices of all the nations entering into the "alliance" 
to settle disputes between the states and governments of 
Central America, not only recognizes the right of European 
powers to interfere with the affairs of the American continent, 
but invites the exercise of such a right, and makes it obliga- 
tory to do so in certain cases. It establishes, in terms, an 
alliance between the contracting parties, and invites all other 
nations to become parties to it. I was opposed also to the 
clause which stipulates that neither Great Britain nor the 
United States will ever occupy, colonize or exercise domin- 
ion over any portion of Nicaragua, Costa Rica, the Mosquito 
Coast, or any portion of Central America. I did not desire 
then, nor do I now, to annex any portion of that country to 
this Union . . . Yet I was unwilling to give the pledge that 
neither we nor our successors ever would . . . California 
being a state of the Union, who is authorized to say that 
the time will not arrive when our interests and safety may 


require us to possess some portion of Central America, which 
lies half way between our Atlantic and Pacific possessions, 
and embraces the great water lines of commerce between 
the two oceans? 

And further: 

But there was another insuperable objection to the Clayton 
and Bulwer Treaty ... I allude to the article in which it 
is provided that "The government of the United States and 
Great Britain, having not only desired to accomplish a par- 
ticular object, but also to establish a general principle, they 
hereby agree to extend their protection, by treaty stipula- 
tions, to any other practicable communications . . . across 
the isthmus which connects North and South America . . ." 

According to Douglas, this clause extended the treaty to include 
not only Central America but Mexico on the north and New 
Granada (Colombia and Venezuela) on the south. Since the 
treaty recognized a partnership not only with Britain but with 
any other foreign powers with whom Britain or the United States 
was friendly and who wished to join, then, he said, 

the American continent shall have passed under the protec- 
torate of the allied powers, and her future made dependent 
upon treaty stipulations for carrying into effect the object 
of the alliance, [and so] Europe will no longer have cause 
for serious apprehension at the rapid growth, expansion, and 
development of our federal Union. She will then console 
herself that limits have been set and barriers erected beyond 
which the territories of this republic can never extend, nor 
its principles prevail. 

It would be difficult to imagine words more expressive of the 
underlying assumptions of Douglas's entire political career than 
the foregoing, in which he co-ordinates the extent of the territory 
of our republic with that of its principles. Not only did Douglas 
believe that Europe was rotten to the core, but he had no regard 
whatever for the political capacity of the Latin Americans, apart 
from the fostering hand of the United States. 

I do not meditate or look with favor upon any aggression 
upon Mexico . . . But who can say that, amid the general 
wreck and demoralization in Mexico a state of things may 


not arise in which a fust regard for our own rights and safety, 
and for the sake of humanity and civilization, may render it 
imperative for us to do that which was done in the case of 
Texas . . , 24 

The principal assumption underlying Whig diplomacy, we have 
said, was the desirability of permanent friendship with Great 
Britain. In the continuation of the debate in the March special 
session Douglas dealt with this as follows: 

... I do not sympathize with that feeling which the senator 
expressed yesterday, that it was a pity to have a difference 
with a nation so friendly to us as England [Douglas's empha- 
sis]. Sir, I do not see the evidence of her friendship. It is 
not in the nature of things that she can be our friend . . . 
Sir, we have wounded her vanity and humbled her pride. 
She can never forgive us. But for us, she would be the 
first power on the face of the earth . . . She is jealous of 
us, and jealously forbids the idea of friendship . . . why 
close our eyes to the fact that friendship is impossible while 
jealousy exists? Hence England seizes every island in the 
sea and rock upon our coast where she can plant a gun to 
intimidate us or annoy our commerce. Her policy has been 
to seize every military and naval station the world over . . . 
Does England hold Bermuda because of any profit it is to 
her? Has she any other motive for retaining it except jealousy 
which stimulates hostility to us? Is it not the case with all 
her possessions along our coast? 

In the same debate he replied to a remark of Senator Butler, 
that England was the "mother country," in this vein: 

I can not recognize England as our mother. If so, she is and 
ever has been a cruel and unnatural mother. I do not find 
the evidence of her affection in her watchfulness over our 
infancy, nor in her joy and pride at our everblooming pros- 
perity and swelling power since we assumed an independent 
position. . . . But, that the Senator from South Carolina, in 
view of our present position and of his location in this con- 
federacy, should indulge in glowing and eloquent eulogiums 
of England ... is to me amazing. He speaks in terms of 
delight and gratitude of the copious and refreshing streams 
which English literature and science are pouring into our 


country and diffusing throughout the land. Is he not aware 
that nearly every English book circulated and read in this 
country contains lurking and insidious slanders and libels 
upon the character of our people and the institutions and 
policy of our government? Does he not know that abolition- 
ism, which has so seriously threatened the peace and safety 
of this republic, had its origin in England, and has been 
incorporated into the policy of that government for the pur- 
pose of operating upon the peculiar institutions of some of 
the states of this confederacy, and thus render the Union 
itself insecure? Does she not keep her missionaries perambu- 
lating this country, delivering lectures, and scattering broad- 
cast incendiary publications, designed to incite prejudices, 
hate, and strife between the different sections of this Union? 
I had supposed that South Carolina and the other slavehold- 
ing states of this confederacy had been sufficiently refreshed 
and enlightened by a certain species of English literature, 
designed to stir up treason and insurrection around his own 
fireside, to have excused the senator from offering up praises 
and hosannas to our English mother! 25 

Douglas did not give up this theme until he had wrung it a good 
deal harder, but we abstain from further quotation. This passage 
does, however, illustrate how a number of separate strands were 
woven into the thread of Douglas's policy. We have already seen 
him contend that England's aristocracy had betrayed the liberal 
movements in Europe, that their class loyalties, except when in 
conflict with national advantages, took precedence over any 
feeling for political freedom. But here we find the most virulent 
hatred of England as the home of abolitionism, although abolition- 
ism had its home in the middle and lower classes, certainly not 
in the aristocracy. Slavery was abolished throughout the British 
colonies (it was mainly concentrated in the West Indies) in 1833, 
by the first Parliament elected after the great act of reform, an 
act representing the first major step by Britain toward democracy 
in the nineteenth century. 

The language which Douglas uses to describe English "mission- 
aries" recalls the expressions and tone of the old "tory" Federalists 
toward the Jacobins, the same Federalists who passed the Alien 
and Sedition Laws, and is familiar in our day in the attitude and 
regard toward Communists. In short, Douglas regarded Britain 


as both reactionary and revolutionary. This may seem inconsist- 
ent; but, if so, it is only a superficial inconsistency. Douglas saw 
British diplomacy conducted by the old ruling classes, who would 
support liberal causes abroad if they happened to coincide with 
British interests; e.g., by weakening the hands of rival monarchi- 
cal powers. But they would with equal or greater alacrity 
sacrifice those same causes when no selfish advantage promised 
to accrue from them. These rulers of Britain had no more sympathy 
for republican freedom in America than for Russian autocracy. 
British abolitionism was unleashed upon America in precisely the 
same spirit in which the revolutionaries of eastern Europe were 
supported against the Czar. The "humanitarian" spirit which 
abolished slavery in the British West Indies cost nothing to the 
parliamentarians in Westminster, who did not have to live among 
the emancipated Negroes. The West Indian slaveholders were not 
asked to give their consent, which would never have been given, 
and the power exerted by Parliament to secure abolition was as 
autocratic, as little based upon the consent of the governed, as 
the Stamp Act or the tax on tea which precipitated the American 

Since Douglas identified political freedom with the greatest 
degree of local autonomy, the coincidence of the emergence of 
the forms of British democracy with abolition caused him to re- 
gard the former in the light of the latter. Douglas no doubt 
construed the quality of British democracy very much in the light 
which abolitionism cast upon democracy in this country, for the 
political aim of abolitionism in America was, quite clearly, to 
convey to the federal government the power to do to the southern 
slave states what the Parliament at Westminster had done to the 
Bahamas. Hardly a man before the Civil War believed the 
Constitution gave the federal government power over slavery in 
the states, but if a militant anti-slavery party controlled all 
branches of the federal government, how long would that belief 
continue? Or, more concretely, if such a party controlled the 
formation and growth of new states, how long would it be before 
three fourths of the states would have the power and the will 
to change the Constitution so as to give the federal government 
this power? Does not the Thirteenth Amendment give the 

Douglas's remarks last quoted were directed against Butler of 
South Carolina, who sat in the seat once occupied by Calhoun. 


Butler's Anglophilism reflected the community of taste and feeling 
of the plantation aristocracy with the British gentry that stood 
the South in good stead during the Civil War. And Butler also 
reflected the anti-expansionist feeling common among many of 
the largest slaveholders of the South and slavery's most rigorous 
defenders. Calhoun himself did not wish any annexation beyond 
Texas, concerning which he was no more than lukewarm. He 
knew in 1850 that his proposal for an amendment to keep the 
slave and free states in balance would never be accepted. And 
so Calhoun and the conservative wing of the extreme pro-slavery 
school of the South always saw that their protection within the 
Union against that three-fourths constitutional majority lay more 
in limiting the number of future states than in seeking new 
territory, which might or might not become slave states. As we 
shall again notice, the strongest slavery men in Congress (and 
out of it) never wished the repeal of the Missouri Compromise, 
for its retention enabled them to block the further organization 
of the West altogether. They were driven to support a measure 
they hated, because the issue was taken out of their hands when 
opposition to it became the rallying cry of the abolitionists. We 
here see Douglas trying to beat down the conservative pro-slavery 
resistance to expansion in Central America and the Caribbean 
and trying also to beat down the spirit of conciliation with Eng- 
land, as he later overcame resistance to the organization of the 
western states, with the Kansas-Nebraska Act. 

We conclude our excerpts from Douglas's major foreign-policy 
pronouncements with some passages from a speech in December 
1858, the month following the election in which he defeated 
Lincoln for the Senate. It was in New Orleans, the city whence 
the Cuban filibusterers were wont to sail. In this speech his 
language regarding future annexations was less restrained, if pos- 
sible, than in the Senate: Cuba, Mexico, Central America (as 
far as Cape Horn, we should guess! ) were all certainly included 
in Manifest Destiny. In passing he recounted a conversation with 
Sir Henry Bulwer that occurred in 1850. 

He took occasion to remonstrate with me that my position 
with regard to the treaty was unjust and untenable; that the 
treaty was fair because it was reciprocal, and it was reciprocal 
because it pledged that neither Great Britain nor the United 


States should ever purchase, colonize, or acquire any territory 
in Central America. I told him that it would be fair if they 
would add one word to the treaty, so that it would read that 
neither Great Britain nor the United States should ever oc- 
cupy or hold dominion over Central America or Asia. But 
he said, "You have no interests in Asia." "No," answered I, 
"and you have none in Central America." "But," said he, 
"you can never establish any rights in Asia." "No," said I, 
"and we don't mean that you shall ever establish any in 
America." 26 

This speech concludes with a peroration in which Douglas says, 
with one qualification, that he is in favor of an indefinite expan- 
sion in which "the more degrees of latitude and longitude 
embraced beneath our Constitution the better," in which "the 
principles of free trade [shall] apply to the important staples 
of the world [our italics], making us the greatest planting as 
well as the greatest manufacturing, the greatest commercial as 
well as the greatest agricultural power on the globe." There was 
but one thing that would modify this advocacy: ". . . but I am 
not in favor of that policy unless the great principle of non- 
intervention and the right of the people to decide the question 
of slavery and all other domestic questions for themselves shall 
be maintained." 

We thus see explicitly co-ordinated, just after the end of the 
great debates, what was implicitly co-ordinated almost from the 
outset of Douglas's career: popular sovereignty and expansion. 
But the co-ordination of these two, in the light of a full reading of 
Douglas's speeches on foreign affairs, casts added light upon the 
doctrine of popular sovereignty. For Douglas clearly intended a 
different kind of union from that conceived by Lincoln. Lincoln, 
like Webster, thought in terms of greater homogeneity, because 
he thought in terms of sharply circumscribed boundaries; and 
he accepted these because, in the Whig-Federalist tradition, he 
tacitly accepted Britain's partnership in deciding vital matters 
affecting the American future. 

Douglas's union would have been a new kind of Rome. Unlike 
the British Empire, it would have been radically democratic, and 
yet it could not admit the peoples of all the lands it absorbed 
into full civic privileges. "If experience shall continue to prove, 
what the past may be considered to have demonstrated, that those 


little Central American powers can not maintain self-government, 
the interests of Christendom require that some power should 
preserve order for them." 27 Precisely how self-governing Ameri- 
cans would deal with the natives when they took over Central 
America, Mexico, etc., Douglas does not say. What is clear, 
however, is that the variety, not only in soil, climate, and pro- 
ductions, but of peoples, that American expansion would involve 
would require policies of great suppleness and flexibility. The 
absolutely necessary condition of such flexibility, and the one 
condition which could be dealt with contemporaneously, was a 
policy of local self-determination, of popular sovereignty, as 
Douglas used the term. That the spread of the federal Union 
to new lands and climes would have involved us in more con- 
spicuous exceptions to general egalitarianism did not disturb 
Douglas. Why should it? He was satisfied that American principles 
could and would accompany the flag, and he did not believe 
they would be extended any other way. The British Empire has 
in our day been transformed into a commonwealth under far more 
autocratic auspices than those conceived by Douglas. Mexicans 
and Orientals in our Far West and Southwest have suffered a 
good deal of second- and third-class citizenship, giving a good 
indication of what might have happened on a much larger scale. 
But have these Mexicans been governed worse than their kinsmen 
across the border? And where, in the Orient, are Orientals more 
fortunate? Within the framework of our constitutional system the 
leaven of free principles has operated steadily in favor of equal 
treatment of the groups suffering most unequal treatment. Are 
people better abandoned to systems which deny them even the 
hope or promise of equality? 

In the great Chicago speech 28 in defense of the Compromise 
of 1850, from which we have quoted above, Douglas spoke, in 
the vein of John Stuart Mill, of the necessity of barbarians being 
governed by civilized men. In the same context he observed, 
"The history of the world furnished few examples where any 
considerable portion of the human race have shown themselves 
sufficiently enlightened and civilized to exercise the rights and 
enjoy the blessings of freedom. In Asia and Africa we find nothing 
but ignorance, superstition, and despotism. Large portions of 
Europe and America can scarcely lay claim to civilization and 
Christianity; and a still smaller portion have demonstrated their 
capacity for self-government/' For Douglas, to strengthen boldly 


the political and material foundations of the one indubitably 
successful modern republic could not be an anti-republican 
policy, simply because all of those comprehended within the re- 
publican boundaries would not themselves immediately become 
full members of the republican polity. The counsels of perfection 
are not for the kingdom of this world. Lincoln, as we shall pres- 
ently see, approved of the policy of the Founding Fathers which 
gave full legal sanction to slavery, where it already existed, as 
a "necessity" without which this republic could not have been 
founded. Cannot any evil, without which a greater good seems 
unattainable, be similarly regarded as a "necessity?" 

Douglas was convinced that he lived in an age of progress, 
yet he did not regard progress as something to be taken for 
granted. The optimism of the age of Tom Paine and Tom Jeffer- 
son had received some rude shocks in the catastrophe of the 
French Revolution, the subsequent dominance of continental 
reaction, and the squalid misgovernment exhibited by the re- 
cently emancipated Latin Americans. Something might be done 
for world freedom, but it must be done by expanding American 
freedom. We should not forget that Douglas was the very proto- 
type of the American politician of the melting pot. As the most 
popular leader of America's largest and most downtrodden im- 
migrant group before the Civil War, he demonstrated, no less 
than Lincoln, how and why the New World could offer hope 
to the people of the Old. But that hope would be stultified if 
the United States was not the undisputed mistress of the New 

As Douglas viewed the political scene at mid-century, he too 
saw the anti-slavery movement and the nativist movement as 
obverse and reverse of the same coin. The anti-slavery movement, 
with its talk of the "higher law," was distinctly aimed at destroying 
the Constitution, was distinctly aimed at a coup d6tat in which, 
when abolitionists held the power of the federal government, the 
powers of the states would be stripped from them. As we have 
amply shown, Douglas was the enemy of extremists North and 
South, yet his enmity was greater for abolitionists, not simply be- 
cause it was more convenient to attack enemies outside the ranks 
of his party, but because he felt they were the aggressors. Seces- 
sion and abolition were equally unconstitutional, but seces- 
sion would be morally justified as the exercise of a revolutionary 
right as Lincoln was to concede in his First Inaugural Address 


if it were the only means to security. And if the abolitionists had 
their way they could eventually, through control of the federal 
machinery, jeopardize the security of Southerners far more than 
King George III had ever done. But the anti-slavery movement 
was also the profoundest obstacle to expansion. Yet it was only 
through expansion that Douglas saw the United States continuing 
to assimilate the bruised and crushed sufferers from European 
despotism. The opponents of expansion were the same who 
would make Britain a "partner" with this country in the New 
World, who would thus "contain" and ultimately strangle us in 
the toils and tangles of Old World diplomacy. And these same 
opponents to expansion, these same devotees of England, were 
the ones who wished to preserve the Anglo-Saxon purity of 
American society, who wished to exclude foreigners from politi- 
cal rights and to keep the benefits of our free institutions to them- 
selves. In short, the movements against slavery, against expansion, 
against foreigners were all movements for British interests and 
for those Americans who conceived their own interests in kinship 
to England's. The high moral tone which permeated all three 
was nothing but snobbishness. The crocodile tears that were shed 
for the Negro were only pretexts for destroying the constitutional 
equality of the states, that equality which alone guaranteed that 
a large republic could remain a free republic; and which, hence, 
alone permitted the extension of our boundaries as far as the 
fulfillment of our republican mission to the world might require. 

Chapter V 
The Repeal of the Missouri Compromise I 




IN 1860 the Illinois State Central Committee of the Republican 
party asserted that Douglas had been anti-slavery until January 
4, 1854. On the twenty-third day of that month, to repeat their 
accusation, "the turning point in Mr. Douglas's political highway" 
was reached. "From this sharp corner," they say, "his course is 
wholly and utterly pro-slavery." That Douglas's shift in tactics did 
not mean a change in his ultimate aims or views with respect to 
slavery, we have already proposed. We have seen that some such 
alteration was the natural response of a wise statesman attempt- 
ing to retain control of events amid the dramatic and rapidly 
shifting scenes of the fifties. Yet this defense of Douglas is clearly 
insufficient for at least one simple reason: the country was enjoy- 
ing a respite from the slavery controversy after the Compromise 
of 1850 had been confirmed by the election of 1852; and the 
dramatic scenes of the later fifties, to which we have said Douglas 
adapted himself, were all directly attributable to his own action 
in repealing the Missouri Compromise. The bloody struggle 
in Kansas, die attempted Lecompton fraud, the Dred Scott de- 
cision, John Brown, all are virtually inconceivable except as 
consequences of the Kansas-Nebraska Act We cannot then credit 
a man with statesmanship for trying to ride the whirlwind which 
he himself has sown. 
Of the great political facts which we have said dominated 


Douglas's judgment in the later fifties, paramount was the 
Republican party, an anti-slavery party capable of representing a 
constitutional majority without drawing a single vote from a slave 
state. Yet Douglas had a primary responsibility for its existence, 
since the Republican party was originally simply the anti- 
Nebraska party. Moreover, we must see that the question of the 
morality of Lincoln's opposition to Douglas in 1858 is identical 
in principle with the question of the morality of Douglas's action 
in 1854. This is true, first of all, because either action was an 
absolute sine qua non of the advent of the Civil War. We have 
spelled out Lincoln's responsibility in Chapter I, but of course the 
opportunity Lincoln seized would not have existed had not 
Douglas espoused the repeal of the Missouri slavery restriction. 
Lincoln's action, which in 1858 denied to Douglas any continuing 
partnership in the free-soil coalition, forced the slavery contro- 
versy back to the pristine issue which had engendered Republi- 
canism in 1854. After the house divided speech, and because of 
it, the central demand of the Republican party, the centripetal 
force in the free-soil coalition, again became the restoration of the 
Missouri Compromise. Thus the debate of 1858 turned more upon 
the question of the justice and expediency of what had happened 
in 1854 than u P on ^7 ther practical question. Only the most 
complete understanding of the nature of the repealing action 
will enable us to judge well of the issues between the two men. 
We have observed in a previous chapter that, in our judgment, 
Douglas never desired and never intended to repeal the Missouri 
Compromise. But we have also maintained that in 1854 Douglas 
came to the conviction that only the full and consistent applica- 
tion of the doctrine of popular sovereignty the true principle of 
republican institutions as he understood them could resolve the 
territorial question and provide a firm basis for future national de- 
velopment. These assertions are paradoxical in two respects: First, 
because Douglas, after the repeal, always insisted that he had 
always intended it. Second, because there is a manifest incongru- 
ity between the proposition that Douglas did not intend the repeal 
and that he did intend full recognition of popular sovereignty. 
It must be our task, in this and the succeeding chapters of Part II, 
to reconcile these assertions. Only by seeing to what extent they 
can be reconciled can we see how Douglas himself must have 
viewed the repeal, and only in this light can we see the case for 
Douglas in its full dimensions. 


To comprehend how such a reconciliation is possible, we must 
grasp in detail the progress and consistency of Douglas's views 
on the question of federal power and duty in the territories, from 
his amendment to the Texas annexation resolutions in 1845 until 
his report and revised Nebraska bill of January 4, 1854. In the 
present chapter we shall analyze Douglas's proposals in dealing 
with territorial questions for the period 1845-50 and his various 
subsequent explanations of them. This we shall do with the 
accusations made against Douglas by the Republicans in the 1860 
campaign, as a foil. Despite the notorious perversity of campaign 
charges, these accusations constitute a principal source of the un- 
derstanding of Douglas's motives which has characterized a great 
body of historical literature. We know no better way to transcend 
the polemics upon this subject than by a critical confrontation of 
them at their point of origin. We will then attempt to show how 
Douglas himself must have viewed his policies, in the periods in 
question, in their tendency to promote or hinder slavery, to 
promote or hinder that genuine local control of domestic institu- 
tions he called popular sovereignty, to promote or hinder sectional 

In Chapter VI we take up the charge of "manifest falsification" 
hurled first by the Independent Democrats and then by the 
entire free-soil movement against Douglas's assertion, in his first 
"quasi* repeal amendment, that the Missouri Compromise restric- 
tion of slavery had been "superseded" by the Compromise of 1850. 
It is our contention that when Douglas made the explicit "super- 
session* assertion he had already been driven from the ground 
he intended, on January 4, 1854, to occupy. Yet the conception 
of the "supersession" of the Missouri Compromise is the central 
conception of the strategy which constituted Douglas's intention 
when he first introduced his revised Nebraska bill The logic of 
the "supersession" thesis would not, we believe, be intelligible 
except in the light of his previous record upon the territorial ques- 
tion. We shall demonstrate how, in this light, it is intelligible, and 
how it partakes of a meaning radically different from that imputed 
to it by Douglas's detractors. 

In Chapter VII we shall first propound the reasons why, in 
January 1854, Douglas must have felt obliged to abandon the 
Nebraska bill of 1853, which he had ardently supported and in 
which no suggestion of repealing the Missouri law occurs. Thence 
we proceed to an analysis of the great report accompanying 


Douglas's revised Nebraska bill. In this report, and in it alone, is 
to be found the key to Douglas's original intentions in bringing 
in this revised bill. The many books and articles on this question, 
from the work of Mrs. Dixon (wife of the Kentucky senator who 
first moved the repeal on the Senate floor, after Douglas's bill 
had been reported) to that of P. O. Ray and Frank Hodder (to 
mention only some leading names), are all beside the point 
in the decisive respect. Although they all contribute collateral in- 
sights by pointing to good reasons why Douglas might have 
accepted the idea of repeal (to get a central or northern railroad 
route, to help Senator Atchison in his fight with Benton, to gain 
southern support for the next presidential nomination, etc.), they 
are needlessly conjectural in saying why he did accept it. This, 
we believe, can be adjudged only in the light of Douglas's 
intentions before the repeal; and the only authentic contemporary 
record of those intentions is Douglas's report and bill of January 
4, 1854. Nowhere, to our knowledge, in the literature on this tre- 
mendous historical crux, is there a thorough analysis of the report. 
We have here attempted to supply it, and by it to show how 
and why (in our judgment) Douglas believed that he could 
establish popular sovereignty as the ruling principle for territorial 
government without repealing the Missouri Compromise. 

Finally, in Chapter VIII, we record the tragic denouement of 
the strategy intended by Douglas but never carried out. From 
this record we may elucidate a judgment of responsibility for the 
catastrophe which will do justice to Douglas's intentions, even 
though it may deplore the action he was driven to endorse. And 
if we find it impossible to believe what he subsequently said about 
his own intentions, we must evaluate his disingenuousness in the 
light of the public good he meant to achieve by it, and in com- 
parison with the alternatives he felt compelled to reject. For if, 
because of reasons he could not have foreseen, the repeal, as the 
lesser of evils, appeared necessary, it was surely right for him to 
represent it in the only light in which he thought he could defend 

The "sharp corner" visualized by the Illinois Republican Com- 
mittee in 1860 is made to appear much more acute by the manner 
in which they interpret Douglas's pronouncements prior to 


January 23, 1854. The plausibility of imputing to Douglas some 
anti-slavery bias in the earlier period we also have maintained, 
and evidence for it has been already presented. Yet the impres- 
sion intended to be conveyed by the Republicans, that he was 
anti-slavery in the same sense that they were, and that he was 
an apostate from their principles, is certainly wrong. The extent 
to which they succeed in producing this impression in their 
pamphlet is by employing the technique of highly selective 
quotation. For they would have us believe that Douglas had 
been, even as they were, a passionate believer in the inviolable 
sanctity of the Missouri Compromise; that he had believed, no 
less than they, in the constitutional power of Congress to prohibit 
slavery in the national territories; and that he had professed to 
believe, no less than Seward or Lincoln, in a policy which looked 
toward the ultimate replacement of slavery by free institutions 
in all the states of the Union, 

It is curious that each of these propositions, stated in terms 
of sufficient generality, is true. Douglas had subscribed to them. 
But he had never done so in the same sense as the Republicans. 
It was only by exploiting equivocations that they made out their 
case against him as an anti-slavery turncoat To take the leading 
example, when Douglas spoke of the Missouri Compromise, he 
did not mean by it the same thing the Republicans meant. To 
Lincoln the Missouri Compromise meant a system of equivalents 
as did the Compromise of 1850. It meant all the parts of the 
bargain taken together and in their relation to each other. To 
Douglas it meant the principle of an equitable division of national 
territory along a geographical line, as represented by the parallel 
of latitude at 36'3o". In other words, Douglas understood the 
Missouri Compromise to be the Missouri Compromise line. In 
many of his speeches "the line" and "the compromise" are inter- 
changeable terms. This usage, we add, was not uncommon. 
Indeed, one of the captions in the Republican tract is: "He 
thought the Missouri Compromise should have been extended to 
the Pacific." Whether such usage involved a misunderstanding re- 
mains to be seen. In any case, we will show why a strong case 
can be made for its political legitimacy and why Douglas's 
espousal of the Missouri Compromise as he understood it, before 
1850, is not inconsistent with his abandonment of it in 1854. 

Before doing so, let us dispose of the charge that Douglas had, 
in the absurd exaggeration of the Republican pamphlet of 1860, 


actually advocate4 Seward's doctrine of an "irrepressible conflict" 
This charge rested mainly on the passage in the speech directed 
against Calhoun in 1850, in which Douglas had spoken of an "age 
of progress" and correlated progress with the gradual abolition of 
slavery. Yet in this speech Douglas said nothing of conflict, irre- 
pressible or otherwise; he merely contemplated the same peaceful 
progress of emancipation that had led six of the original thirteen 
states to emancipate their slaves in the half century that followed 
independence. Moreover, since the agency of emancipation was 
local opinion, operating through the machinery of state govern- 
ment, it was an example to him of the true method by which 
freedom extinguished slavery in an "age of progress," without any 
reference to the federal government of the republic whatever. 
Further: when men like Lincoln and Seward spoke of the 
opposition of freedom and slavery, they thought, as Lincoln said 
at Peoria, of an "eternal antagonism," of a "collision" so fierce that 
"shocks, and throes, and convulsions must ceaselessly follow." But 
Douglas never conceded any such antagonism. Progress was the 
result of enlightened self-interest: there was no more "eternal 
antagonism" between freedom and slavery, in his view, than be- 
tween the horse and the steam engine. As the advantages of the 
one came to be understood it naturally replaced the other. This, 
we believe, is another aspect of the "dollars-and-cents" argument 
to which we have sufficiently adverted above. But further: 
Douglas's expectation that slavery would be replaced by freedom 
was not, in and of itself, a policy. Like the opening of Lincoln's 
house divided speech, Douglas in 1850 was expressing what he 
believed would happen rather than what ought to happen. 

When Lincoln in 1858 expressed the conviction that the Union 
must become all slave or all free, Douglas accused him of advo- 
cating a war between the sections. And Lincoln's persistent retort 
was that he did not, by these words, advocate anything at all; 
he only said what he believed would happen. The two men 
differed in their estimates of the direction events were taking, but 
the difference in their "predictions" was of course symptomatic of 
the difference in their policies. From an anti-slavery viewpoint, 
Douglas was an optimist and Lincoln a pessimist. It was in large 
measure because Douglas did not believe in the possible victory 
of slavery over freedom in the nation at large that he chose a 
policy which would put out of sight, as far as possible^ the harsh 
moral contrast Lincoln, on the contrary, saw nothing irreversible 


in "progress," no guarantee that the principles of republican 
government might not perish. He would never, therefore, acqui- 
esce in a policy that promised sectional peace, on the assumption 
that a decision by default with regard to slavery must inevitably 
be a decision against slavery. This Republican charge only con- 
ceals the gulf which always existed between Lincoln and Douglas. 

Let us now clarify Douglas's general stand with regard to the 
power of Congress to prohibit slavery in the territories. The Dred 
Scott decision, of course, forced Douglas to perform remarkable 
but not invariably successful mental gymnastics in order to 
harmonize that monstrosity with his previous pronouncements. 
But before the debacle of this decision which was a personal ca- 
tastropheDouglas was remarkably consistent in his views. And 
this consistency is easily appreciated if a simple distinction is kept 
in mind. It is that, while Douglas always granted the legal power 
of the federal government to prohibit slavery in a territory, he 
also always insisted upon the superior moral right of such action 
being reserved to the inhabitants of a territory when organized 
into a political community. Douglas's position on the exercise of 
federal power over slavery in the territories paralleled Lincoln's 
position on the legitimacy of slavery in the states. Lincoln be- 
lieved slavery to be against natural right, to be intrinsically un- 
just. Yet he conceded there were circumstances in which it might 
be the lesser evil. Since it is wise to choose the lesser of two 
evils when no other alternative is possible, the decision in favor 
of slavery, in a concrete case, might be morally right, even though 
slavery itself is morally wrong. In essence, although without 
the same casuistical clarity, this was Douglas's conception of the 
relation of popular sovereignty to such exercises of federal author- 
ity as the Ordinance of 1787 and the Missouri Compromise. 
Popular sovereignty was the true principle upon which our repub- 
lican institutions rested; but in certain actual situations federal 
legislation better served to pacify sectional antagonisms, to pre- 
serve the Union. Douglas was inclined to be indifferent about 
accepting the federal restriction of slavery in these cases and in 
the cases where he proposed the extension of the Missouri Com- 
promise line because he was morally certain that the results of 
such federal law would only mean the placing of a seal of approval 
upon the results of popular sovereignty. Douglas was no doctri- 
naire; he would never insist on what he believed was a purely 


abstract principle, without regard for consequences. What Doug- 
las was prepared to do if the right of a people to exclude slavery 
from a territory was seriously interfered with was demonstrated 
to the world in the battle against Lecompton. To sum up: Douglas 
never believed that Congress, as distinct from the people of a 
territory, should decide for or against slavery. But as long as a 
congressional enactment served to produce general acquiescence 
in a settlement throughout the nation, and as long as such a 
settlement was not a substantive denial of popular sovereignty, 
Douglas was willing to "prefer" such a mode of dealing with slav- 
ery in the territories. The legal power of Congress he always 
concededbefore Dred Scott but the expediency of its exercise 
depended upon contingent factors. Among those factors, the chief 
one was the state of public opinion, North and South, that had 
made such an enactment as the Missouri Compromise a cause of 
harmony and not of mutual grievance. Whenever such restriction 
of slavery became a bone of contention, there was no moral claim 
which would cause Douglas to cling to it The Missouri Compro- 
mise never had any other merit in Douglas's eyes than its utility 
as a cause of intersectional harmony. 

We shall now take up some points in the documentation of the 
charge that Douglas had been false to his own principles when 
he renounced federal restriction of slavery in Nebraska and 
consented to the repeal of the Missouri Compromise. The first 
Republican allegation was that in 1845, as a member of the House, 
he had introduced the amendment to the joint resolution for the 
annexation of Texas which provided "and in such States as may 
be formed out of said territory north of the Missouri Compromise 
line, slavery or involuntary servitude except for crime shall be 
prohibited." "Let it be observed," crowed the Republicans, "that 
while Thomas Jefferson and the fathers of the Republic pro- 
posed to prohibit slavery in the Territories only, and while the 
Republican party of today propose no more and no less, Stephen 
A. Douglas sought, in 1845, to prohibit it in States, even though 
the people wanted it!" 

The foregoing amendment had been offered on January 25, and 
on February 23 Douglas spoke in the House on the question of 
the admission of Iowa and Florida, at which time he made the 
following remarks, which the Republicans quoted against him: 


The father may bind his son during his minority, but the 
moment he attains his majority his fetters are severed, and 
he is free to regulate his own conduct. SO WITH THE 
tain their majority AND OBTAIN ADMISSION INTO THE 
UNION, they are free from all restraints and restrictions, 
except such as the Constitution of the United States has 
imposed upon each and all of the States. [Capitals supplied 
by the Republican Committee.] 

It is, we think, reasonable to interpret the constitutional thinking 
of Douglas's amendment in the light of this speech, made less 
than a month afterward. The Republicans think this passage 
exhibits Douglas as an exponent of the constitutional power of 
Congress to place any restriction it might have seen fit to place 
upon the territories. But the passage also cuts another way: it 
denies the power of Congress to place any restrictions that are 
binding beyond the territorial period. It says, in effect, that the 
amendment to the annexation resolutions could not bind states 
formed from Texas north of the Missouri Compromise line to for- 
bid slavery after they had been admitted to the Union as states. 
We must recall that, although the Missouri Compromise "forever 
prohibited" slavery in the remaining Louisiana territory north of 
the line, this was generally understood to apply only to the terri- 
torial period. Legal opinion in 1820 was divided, but we are told 
in John Quincy Adams's diary that President Monroe and all his 
Cabinet, Adams himself alone excepted, so believed. 1 By 1845 
opinion was overwhelming in favor of the doctrine advanced by 
Douglas, and in 1858 Lincoln himself did not dispute it. In the 
joint debates he conceded that if Congress kept slavery out of a 
territory before it became a state, and the people thereafter 
adopted slavery, there was no power under the Constitution to 
say them nay. From this, as will presently appear, Douglas's 
amendment to the Texas annexation resolution had exactly the 
same force and effect as the Missouri Compromise. 

The Republicans also overlooked a distinction between the 
Missouri legislation and the annexation resolution. The enabling 
act for the admission of Missouri was, while the latter was not, 
a statute in the ordinary sense. It was originally sought to annex 


Texas by treaty, but the partisans of the measure ware unable to 
secure the support of two thirds of the Senate, whereas they did 
command majorities in both houses. Whatever the constitutional 
merits (or demerits) of the method employed to secure Texas, 
what was admitted to the Union via the joint resolution was not 
a "territory," in the sense of a community inferior in legal political 
capacity to a state. Texas, prior to admission, was a republic, as 
free and independent of the United States as the United States 
was of Great Britain. The word "territory" in the amendment to 
the joint resolution refers to the extent of land lying north of the 
compromise line, not to the political condition of that land. Doug- 
las in 1854 explained his amendment correctly when he said that 
Congress did not have the power to bind the action of "States" 
formed out of Texas and applying for admission, but that the 
joint resolutions formed a compact with the Republic of Texas 
which, as an independent power, could commit her citizens, while 
subjects of Texas, to the fulfillment of such obligations. This power 
of Texas over "applying" states, however, also ended the moment 
they became actual states, equal in all constitutional respects to 
their "parent." When the Republic of Texas joined the Union, all 
of it became the State of Texas. Thus all "States" formed out of 
Texas and applying for admission to the Union would remain un- 
der the jurisdiction of the State of Texas until the moment of 
admission. We leave aside the question of the true boundaries of 
Texas, later decided by compromise. Much territory claimed by 
Texas was later joined to New Mexico Territory, and some to 
other territories to the north. But whatever Texas's true bounda- 
ries, it was provided in the terms of annexation that this same 
state might in future be subdivided into four additional states with 
the consent of Texas and Congress. It will be observed that the 
word "territory" in Douglas's amendment was not capitalized; 
while the word "States," following the usual but not invariable 
custom of that day, was capitalized. When the Republicans, in 
their scathing comment, refer to "Territories" in the sense that 
includes political capacity and not mere extent of land, they too 
capitalize. In short, because all of Texas was transformed by an- 
nexation from an independent republic to a state in the Union, the 
law did not contemplate "Territories" there, or to be formed there, 
to which the slavery prohibition could extend. Douglas's language 
is strictly correct and means that, when applying for admission 
as states, such "States" as are formed north of 36'so" shall apply 


with constitutions prohibiting slavery. It does not, however, pro- 
hibit these prospective states, any more than the Ordinance of 
1787 prohibited Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, Wisconsin, or Michigan 
or the Missouri Compromise prohibited Iowa after 1846 from 
adopting slavery as a domestic institution at any time after ad- 
mission to statehood. However unthinkable such a development 
may in fact have been, the legal situation was generally thus un- 
derstood at the time of the Lincoln-Douglas debates. 

This view of the Constitution is vehemently set forth in another 
portion of that same speech of February 13, 1845. It is omitted 
in the Republican tract but immediately precedes, in the original, 
the passage already given. 

It was clear in his mind [said Douglas] that whenever a new 
State was admitted into the Union, it came in on an equal 
footing, in all respects, with the original States; and all at- 
tempts to deprive her of that equality, by act of Congress, 
was in derogation of the Constitution of the United States, 
and consequently void . . . Many of the northern States have, 
at different periods, asserted and exercised the right of es- 
tablishing and abolishing slavery, each for itself, without 
reference to the wishes of Congress, or of any other States. 
If the old States had this power, he could not discover how 
it could be denied to the new ones ... A man might as well 
attempt to impose restraints upon the free action of his son 
after his arrival at full and lawful age, as Congress to fetter 
the action of the Territories after their admission into the 
Union as States. 2 

It will be seen that the burden of the two passages, taken together, 
is not so much that Congress has legal power to bind during the 
territorial period although this is, incidentally, affirmed but that 
it does not have such power when once that period has passed. 

In the same speech Douglas already indicates, albeit indirectly, 
the opinion that his own state had never been affected by the 
Northwest Ordinance. "Illinois," he says here, "by the free will of 
her own people, came into the Union without slavery, and with 
a constitution declaring that slavery shall never exist." This as- 
sertion in 1845 is paralleled by another of 1850, which is among 
those quoted in the Republican tract to show his earlier anti- 
slavery feelings: 


I undertake to say that there is not one of these States that 
would have tolerated the institution of slavery in its limits, 
even if it had been peremptorily required to do so by act of 
Congress. It is a libel on the character of these people to 
were smothered, and their political action upon this question 
constrained and directed by act of Congress. Will the Sena- 
tors from Ohio, Indiana, Michigan, Wisconsin and Iowa make 
any such DEGRADING ADMISSION in respect to their 
SION . . . [Capitals supplied by the Republican Commit- 

Let us note that what is common to these two passages is the 
inefficacy of federal legislation concerning slavery in the ter- 
ritories. The Republican Committee comments on the 1850 selec- 
tion thus: "Let the reader contrast this fine assertion of the 
conscientious convictions of the people of Illinois with the horri- 
ble libel upon them contained in his speech of February zgth, 
1860 . . . and see how he has kept his promise 'never to blacken 
the character* of his own State by such an admission." Here are 
the remarks of 1860 which, incidentally, are practically identical 
with passages in the joint debates of 1858: 

We in Illinois tried slavery while we were a Territory, and 
found it was not profitable; and hence we turned philan- 
thropists and abolished it 

And again: 

But they (the people of Illinois) said "experience proves that 
it is not going to be profitable in this climate." . . . They 
had no scruples about its being right, but they said, "we can- 
not make any money by it ... perhaps we shall gain popu- 
lation faster if we stop slavery and invite in the northern 
population"; and as a matter of political policy, State policy, 
they prohibited Slavery themselves. 

Now an unbiased reading of the 1850 and 1860 statements will 
show that there is no contradiction between them. The pledge 
"never to blacken the character" of his constituents refers to the 
absence of constraint or direction by Congress of their action in 


excluding slavery, and has no reference whatever to their motive 
in so doing. The intended impression, that Douglas had once im- 
puted a moral repudiation of slavery to Illinois, which he later 
denied, is destroyed the moment one reads further in the 1850 
speech. Douglas never believed that qualms as to the morality 
of slavery had ever had any influence in determining political 
action with respect to it certainly not in the old Northwest. 
Slavery, he maintained, did not prove highly profitable north of 
the Ohio River. If the economic development of the area could 
not be carried on in the manner traditional in the South from 
which most of the Northwest was originally settled then free 
labor must be invited in. Since free labor and slave labor did 
not mix this is Douglas's tacit rather than explicit premise, but 
it was universally understood then slavery on the soil of the 
Northwest must be ended. What is impressive, above all, is Doug- 
las's steady insistence that popular sovereignty was not only the 
right principle but the only practical one. This must be kept in 
mind when noting his attempts to extend the Missouri Com- 
promise line. In his mind, the extension of the line to new 
territories, or its retraction from the old, was never more than 
a token concession to fallacious albeit politically important- 

We now present evidence substantiating the foregoing inter- 
pretation, drawn from the same 1850 speech. The major con- 
tention of this 1850 speech is its denial of Calhoun's thesis; 
viz., that the rights of the South had been persistently violated 
by the North and that the South was entitled to guarantees of 
equal rights in the common territories of the nation. The core 
of Douglas's denial is that the Constitution the bond of Union- 
recognizes and represents in the federal legislature the states and 
the people, but not sections. The following passage is, incidentally, 
among those used in the Republican campaign tract. 

The territories belong to the United States as one people, 
one nation, and are to be disposed of for the common benefit 
of all, according to the principles of the Constitution. Each 
State, as a member of the Confederacy, has a right to a voice 
in forming the rules and regulations for the government of 
the Territories; but the different sections North, South, East, 
and West have no such right. It is no violation of southern 
rights to prohibit slavery [at this point the Republicans leave 


off quoting in their pamphlet!], nor of northern rights to 
leave the people to decide the question for themselves. In 
this sense no geographical section of the Union is entitled 
to any share of the territories. 8 

Precisely why there could be no violation of southern rights, by 
either the Ordinance of 1787, the Missouri Compromise, or the 
provision excluding slavery from the Oregon Territory, is now 
set forth. The following is not reproduced in the Republican cam- 
paign tract. 

But I must proceed to the consideration of the particular 
acts of aggression of which the Senator complains. And first 
of the Ordinance of 1787 . . . This ordinance, the Senator 
from South Carolina informs us, had the effect "to exclude 
the South entirely from that vast and fertile region which 
lies between the Ohio and Mississippi rivers, now embracing 
five States and one territory." Is not the Senator mistaken in 
his facts? ... at the time the constitution of the State of 
Ohio was formed, at least one half of the people of that 
State, and probably more, were natives of, were immigrants 
from southern States: that fully two-thirds of the people of 
Indiana, at the time she adopted her constitution, were na- 
tives of the South; and that a much larger proportion of the 
people of Illinois, at the time she was admitted into the 
Union, were also from the South. These facts do not indicate 
that the Ordinance had the effect to exclude the South en- 
tirely from those territories. Let us next inquire what effect 
it had upon slavery there. The ordinance . . . was adopted 
. . . when the whole country was a vast unpeopled wilder- 
ness . . . The object of the ordinance was to prohibit, not 
to abolish, slavery in the Northwest territory. And as an 
evidence that the ordinance has produced the effect intended 
by its framers, we have been repeatedly referred to those 
five free States carved out of that territory. 

Here we interject the comment that the insistence that the 
ordinance had produced its intended effect-potf hoc, propter hoc 
was a central contention of Lincoln throughout the debates. 
Lincoln agreed with Douglas that the South had not been de- 
barred from the old Northwest. Had not the Lincolns migrated 
from the slave soil of Kentucky? But he emphatically insisted 


that the prohibition of slavery was a necessary cause of the 
difference between the states south of the Ohio River, in which 
slavery existed, and the states north of it, not one of which per- 
mitted slavery. Lincoln's argument, one must observe, conceded 
the grounds upon which the southern sense of grievance fed 
the grounds of Calhoun's argument. For Lincoln not only con- 
ceded, but insisted, that slaveholding had been debarred by 
federal enactment. This was gall and wormwood to the South. 
What we should never lose sight of, in reading what follows, is 
that Douglas employed the identical argument to attack Calhoun 
in 1850 and to attack Lincoln in 1858 and 1860. The ambidex- 
terity of the argument, as well as its historical merits, must be 
taken into account in its evaluation. 

True, these five States are now free, with provisions in the 
constitutions of each prohibiting slavery in all time to come; 
but was it the ordinance that made them free States? The 
census returns show that there were three hundred and thirty- 
one slaves in Illinois in 1840, and more than seven hundred 
in 1830. 1 do not recollect precisely how many there were in 
the other States; but I remember there was quite a number 
in Indiana. How came these slaves in Illinois? They were 
taken there under the ordinance and in defiance of it. Illinois 
was a slave territory. The people were mostly emigrants from 
the slaveholding States, and attached to the institution by 
association, habit, and interest. Supposing that the soil, 
climate, and productions of the country were adapted to 
slave labor, they naturally desired to introduce the institution 
to which they had been accustomed during their whole lives. 
Accordingly, the territorial legislature passed laws, the object 
and effect of which was to introduce slavery under what 
was called a system of indentures. These laws authorized 
the owners of slaves to bring them into the territory, and 
there enter into contracts with them, by which the slaves 
were to serve the master during the time specified in the 
contracts or "indentures," which were usually for a period 
reaching beyond the life of the slaves; and in the event the 
slaves should refuse to enter into the indenture [a most un- 
likely contingency!], after being brought into the territory, 
the master was allowed thirty days to take them back again, 
so as not to lose the right of property in them. Under the 


operation of these laws, Illinois became a slaveholding terri- 
tory under the ordinance, and in utter defiance of its plain 
and palpable provision. The convention which assembled at 
Kaskaskia, in 1818, to form the constitution of die State of 
Illinois, was composed, to a considerable extent, of slave- 
holders, representing a slaveholding constituency. This body 
of men had become satisfied, from experience, that the cli- 
mate and productions of the country were unfavorable to 
slave labor, and that the institution was prejudicial to their 
interests and welfare. Accordingly, we find three important 
principles established in the constitution which they framed, 
and with which Illinois was admitted into the Union: 

ist. The right of property in all slaves, or indentured per- 
sons then in the State, was confirmed: 

2nd. That no slaves should thereafter be brought into the 

3rd. Provision for a gradual system of emancipation, by 
which the State should eventually become entirely free. 

. . . These facts furnish a practical illustration of that great 
truth, which ought to be familiar to all statesmen and politi- 
cians, that a law passed by the national legislature to operate 
locally upon a people not represented, will always remain 
practically a dead letter upon the statute book, if it be in 
opposition to the wishes and supposed interests of those who 
are to be affected by it, and at die same time charged with 
its execution ... In free countries, laws and ordinances are 
mere nullities, unless sustained by the hearts and intellects 
of the people for whom they are made, and by whom they 
are to be executed. 

This last passage places a finger upon one of the most vital of 
the nerves of the controversy between Lincoln and Douglas. In a 
passage in the first joint debate, to which we shall return, Lincoln 
was to say, "In this and like communities, public sentiment is 
everything. With public sentiment, nothing can fail; without it, 
nothing can succeed. Consequently, he who molds public senti- 
ment goes deeper than he who enacts statutes or pronounces 
decisions. He makes statutes and decisions possible or impossible 
to be executed." Thus Lincoln, no less than Douglas, believed 


that the execution of laws, ordinances, and decisions, in a free 
society, depended upon "the hearts and intellects of the people 
for whom they are made." Now how were the Ordinance of 1787 
and the Missouri Compromise restrictions upon slavery to be 
enforced? The statutes in question contained nothing but simple 
declarations that slavery "shall be prohibited." Concerning how 
or by whom the prohibitions were to be enforced, nothing what- 
ever was said. Tlie only compulsion resulting from such enact- 
ments would occur if a federal court refused to uphold a territorial 
slaveholder's claim should it come to be adjudicated. 

What good such "enforcement" might be to Negroes held as 
slaves on "free" soil assuming the federal courts were to regard 
the congressional prohibition as valid is indicated by a passage 
in Lincoln's Peoria speech: 

But it is said, there is now [October 1854] no * aw ^ Nebraska 
on the subject of slavery; and that, in such case, taking a 
slave there, operates his freedom. That is good book-law; 
but is not the rule of actual practice. Wherever slavery is, 
it has been first introduced without law. The oldest laws we 
find concerning it, are not laws introducing it; but regulating 
it, as an already existing thing. A white man takes his slave 
to Nebraska now; who will inform the negro that he is free? 
Who will take him before court to test the question of his 
freedom? In ignorance of his legal emancipation, he is kept 
chopping, splitting and plowing. Others are brought, and 
move on in the same track. At last, if ever the time for voting 
comes, on the question of slavery, the institution already in 
fact exists in the country, and cannot well be removed. The 
facts of its presence, and the difficulty of its removal, will 
carry the vote in its favor. Keep it out until a vote is taken, 
and a vote in favor of it, can not be got in any population 
of forty thousand, on earth, who have been drawn together 
by the ordinary motives of emigration and settlement. To 
get slaves into the country simultaneously with the whites, 
in the incipient states of settlement, is the precise stake 
played for, and won in this Nebraska measure. 4 

But how much did the Missouri Compromise and the Northwest 
Ordinance differ from the "book-law" that no law is free law? 
Lincoln asserted that it made a great difference: ". . . the posi- 
tive congressional enactment is known to, and respected by all, 


or nearly all; whereas the negative principle that no law is free 
law, is not much known except among lawyers." As a practical 
illustration of the difference, Lincoln pointed to the difference 
between Illinois and "the adjoining Missouri country, where there 
was no Ordinance of '87 ... [and] they [i.e., slaves] were 
carried ten times, nay a hundred times, as fast, and actually made 
a slave State." Douglas's historical brief is a powerful denial that 
"respect" for a positive congressional enactment, an enactment 
unsupported by any enforcement legislation, could have made 
any such difference as Lincoln implied it had. 

May not a strong prima-facie case in favor of Douglas be found 
in that the history of the American frontier shows little respect 
or regard for laws which the settlers did not believe to be in 
their immediate interest? Moreover, the moral sense of Americans 
has always been, as Douglas indicates, strongly prejudicial to the 
enactments of a legislature in which they were not directly 
represented. Lincoln's argument rests heavily on the physical 
contiguity of Missouri and Illinois. Yet Lincoln does not consider 
whether, despite this and apart from federal law, there might 
not have been sufficient economic differences in the situations of 
the two states to tip the balance for and against slavery in oppo- 
site directions. Missouri was not only farther west than Illinois 
but in closer contact with the Deep South. Illinois, touching only 
the border state of Kentucky, was much closer to the Northeast 
via the Great Lakes. The navigation of the Mississippi, always 
highly important to both states, nevertheless was relatively more 
important to Missouri. It was symptomatic of the economic futures 
of both states, futures which must have been visible relatively 
early, that their two greatest cities should have faced in different 
directions. St. Louis had its strongest links with New Orleans, 
Chicago with the great Atlantic ports. The economic heart of 
Illinois was the grain- and hog-producing prairies, which were 
deemed highly unsuited to slave labor. But the richest grain lands 
extended across only the northern tier of Missouri counties. Mis- 
souri, however, had found the use of slave labor profitable in 
the cultivation of hemp. In the presence of such considerations, it 
seems highly unlikely that "book-law" and federal law differed 
as much as Lincoln says they did. Who would have told slaves 
carried into Nebraska that their legal rights had been violated? 
As Lincoln liked to point out, no one had bothered to tell Dred 
Scott that he was a free man during his long residence on free 


soil. Indeed, after 1857 the federal judiciary would not have 
enforced such "rights." Lincoln's argument of "respect" for the 
Northwest Ordinance is hardly supported by the evidence of the 
system of indentures, which was a practical circumvention of the 
slavery prohibition. Local law seems to have been the effective 
law, as Douglas asserted. Only if Congress had enacted a federal 
anti-slave code, to be enforced locally, would the broad declara- 
tions have had much practical effect. Yet Lincoln and the 
Republicans never even dared to ask for this. 

Further illustrations of Douglas's attitude toward federal re- 
strictions of slaveryillustrations cited in 1860 as examples of a 
"Republican" attitude in 1850 are Douglas's amendment to the 
Oregon bill and his espousal of the cause of the constitutionality 
of the Mexican law prohibiting slavery in New Mexico. Calhoun 
had declared that the provision in the law organizing Oregon 
Territory which forbade slavery was another of the "aggressions" 
of the North upon the South. To this also Douglas replied by 
pointing out that it was not the federal law but the settlers 
themselves who had excluded slavery. During the period of joint 
occupation with Great Britain, the frontiersmen had formed a 
government for themselves which came to be known as the pro- 
visional government of Oregon. 

By one of the fundamental articles of that government [said 
Douglas], slavery was forever prohibited in that territory 
. . . That bill [organizing Oregon as an American territory 
after the settlement of the northwest boundary with Great 
Britain], so far as the question of slavery was concerned, 
did nothing more than re-enact and affirm the law which the 
people themselves had previously adopted, and rigorously 
executed, for the period of twelve years. It was a mere dead 
letter, without the slightest effect upon the admission or ex- 
clusion of slavery . . . 6 

Here we find the federal law conceived as a mere endorsement 
of a decision previously rendered by "popular sovereignty." The 
only question is why Douglas urged the inclusion of an amend- 
ment that had no practical effect if it was so irritating to the 
South. The answer to this will appear shortly. First we present 
another passage quoted against him in the Republican campaign 
tract It was delivered in the Senate on February 12, 1850: 


I am ready ... to show that by the constituted authority 
and constitutional authority of Mexico, slavery was prohib- 
ited in Mexico at the time of the acquisition, and that pro- 
hibition was acquired by us with the soil, and that when 
we acquired the territory, we acquired it with that attached 
to it that covenant running with the soil and that must 
continue, unless removed by competent authority. And be- 
cause there was a prohibition thus attached to the soil, I 
have always thought it was an unwise, unnecessary, and 
unjustifiable course on the part of the people of the free 
States, to require Congress to put another prohibition on 
the top of that one. It has been the strongest argument 
that I have ever urged against the prohibition of slavery in 
the Territories, that it was not necessary for the accomplish- 
ment of their object. [Italics in the Republican excerpt 

Before offering comment, we continue the passage as it appears 
in the Congressional Globe: 

It was unwise, it was unnecessary, it was irritating one section 
of the Union against another, without doing any good, or 
even accomplishing the object in view by the other section. 
I have always held that doctrine. I have opposed the Wilmot 
Proviso on other grounds; that it was in violation of the great 
fundamental principle of self-government; that it was a ques- 
tion which the people should be left to decide for themselves. 
I have always held, and hold now, that if the people of Cali- 
fornia want slavery they have a right to it, and if they do 
not, it should not be forced upon them. They have as much 
right as the people of Illinois or any other State to settle the 
question for themselves. I go further, and I hold that to pro- 
hibit slavery in the territories, whilst it is a violation of the 
great fundamental principles of self-government, is no viola- 
tion of the rights of the southern States. I go further, that 
to recognize the institution of slavery in the Territories is 
no violation of the rights of the northern States. In that sense, 
neither have a right there, in my opinion, to do either. Either 
to prohibit or establish slavery, by an act of Congress, over 
a people not represented here, is a violation of the rights 
of the people of California . . . Why, sir, the principle of 
self-government is, that each community shall settle this 


question for itself; and I hold that the people of California 
have the right either to prohibit or establish slavery, and 
we have no right to complain, either in the North or the 
South, whichever they do. I hold that, till they do establish 
it, the prohibition of slavery in the territories which we 
acquired by treaty attached to the soil . . . remains in force, 
I hold it as a legal proposition. 6 

It will be seen that the main burden of the speech is its attack 
upon the Wilmot Proviso, and the contention in favor of the 
Mexican law abolishing slavery is incidental a fact which con- 
siderably mitigates the strength of the anti-slavery sentiment 
emphasized by the partial selection. The legal proposition con- 
cerning the force of the Mexican anti-slavery law, although 
bitterly contested by Calhoun and Jefferson Davis, was widely 
accepted. Henry Clay, the chief architect of the 1850 compro- 
mise, maintained it vigorously, and Lincoln followed Clay's view, 
as he generally did. This was one of the chief arguments besides 
Webster's espousal of the "soil and climate" thesis in his March 7 
speech which enabled the compromise to be accepted in the 
free states. Yet there was an apparently slight but potentially 
vast difference between the Clay-Lincoln conception of the force 
of Mexican law and Douglas's: according to Douglas, popular 
sovereignty permitted the people of New Mexico (or California) 
to introduce slavery prior to statehood. That Douglas, accepting 
Webster's argument of the unsuitability of slavery in these regions, 
considered this a mere hypothetical alternative ought not to be 
permitted to obscure it 

Douglas in 1850 was then less anti-slavery, or at least anti- 
slavery in a different sense, than he is represented to have been 
by the Republicans. Yet we must always remember the modifica- 
tions in his anti-slavery views in the perspective of his continuing 
struggle against the Calhoun-Jefferson Davis wing of the Demo- 
cratic party. The anti-slavery Whigs of the North believed that 
slavery was not only forbidden throughout the Mexican acquisi- 
tion by Mexican law but that it would so remain, even after 
the 1850 legislation, until the people of the territories applied 
for admission into the Union as states. What Douglas thought 
of the precise legal situation created by the New Mexico and 
Utah territorial legislation is somewhat obscure, but the practical 
situation was clearly thus, as he viewed it: The people of the 


territories might introduce slavery whenever they chose and not 
only when they organized themselves for statehood. In an "age 
of progress," however, this possibility was merely hypothetical. 
Jefferson Davis, on the other hand, although denying the validity 
of the Mexican anti-slavery law upon American soil, wished 
specifically to deny to the territorial legislatures any power to 
exclude slavery. Davis clearly believed what Lincoln always 
maintained: that, unless the slaveholders went into the territories 
toith slaves, the territorial legislature would never vote a slave 
code. Davis, in short, understood popular sovereignty, as pro- 
pounded by Douglas in 1850, as a guarantee of free soil. Douglas 
fought Davis bitterly on this issue in 1850 and at length prevailed, 
at least to the extent that the 1850 territorial bills extended to 
the territorial legislatures' power over "all rightful subjects of 
legislation, consistent with the Constitution of the United States," 
without either the exception or specification of slavery. 

However, whether it was consistent with the Constitution for a 
territorial legislature to introduce or exclude slaverythe former 
proposition being denied by Wilmot Proviso men and the latter 
by Calhoun-Davis menwas not decided by Congress. The 
question was shunted off by provisions of the law which said 
that "all cases involving title to slaves'* and "questions of personal 
freedom" might be appealed to the Supreme Court. We shall 
in Chapter VII have further occasion to see how the Compromise 
of 1850 in fact compromised very little of the outstanding dif- 
ferences on the slavery issue; what it really did was to sweep 
them under the rug. Or, more accurately, it entrusted them from 
1850 on to the Supreme Court. What is surprising is that it took 
seven years for that tribunal to pronounce upon any of these 
differences. It is probable that Douglas succeeded in his struggle 
with Davis only because nothing was really decided against Davis 
but rather postponed for the decision of the Court. It is passing 
strange how quiet the pro-slavery extremists became when the 
fate of their convictions was put into the hands of this Court! 
However, the concession made by the free to the slave states 
in 1850, that the people of the Utah and New Mexican territories 
might choose to have slavery when applying for statehood- 
which choice they could in any case make the day after being 
admitted did not make the law in New Mexico and Utah ap- 
preciably different from what it had been in the old Northwest 
or in the lands covered by the Missouri Compromise prohibition. 


Douglas's assertion of the validity of Mexican law meant that 
as in the old Northwest pro-slavery men might go into the 
territories but would not take slaves with them until they had 
decided, after arrival, to establish slavery there. Then they might 
establish slavery if they found it desirable to do so. Douglas, as 
we have noted, no more expected this to happen than Daniel 
Webster did. Yet it might be well to note here that it did happen 
in 1859, when the Territory of New Mexico passed a slave code. 
It is debatable, however, whether the New Mexico slave code 
of 1859 ever was intended or expected to extend slavery. There 
never were more than a few slaves there. In the overheated 
atmosphere just before the Civil War, it may have signified no 
more than an expression of the solidarity of the New Mexicans 
with the Deep South. In 1859, as Douglas strove to repair the 
damage of his Freeport doctrine, he was frantic in his efforts to 
use the New Mexico slave code as an example of how popular 
sovereignty had "spread" slavery. But, again, this may have 
represented far less of a reversal than it appeared. With secession 
imiainent, Douglas was attempting to convince the South that 
there was little reality in its imagined grievances. 

But why, if Douglas regarded the Wilmot Proviso as an un- 
necessary irritant because of the previous prohibition of slavery 
attached to the soil by Mexican law, had he moved the amend- 
ment prohibiting slavery in Oregon, where it had already been 
effectively excluded? The answer is twofold. In the first place, 
the Wilmot Proviso went much farther than any other legal pro- 
hibition had ever gone. It would have pledged the faith of the 
nation to guarantee the freedom of the soil for all future time. 
This, in Douglas's view, was unconstitutional, because the federal 
government had no power thus to abridge the freedom of future 
states. In the second place, Oregon was far north of the Missouri 
Compromise line, while nearly half of the former Mexican lands 
were south of that line. The unconditional prohibition which 
would, on its face, have been an unrepealable prohibition was 
vastly more irritating. 

Yet there is a third reason: the Oregon bill passed in 1848. At 
that time Douglas was striving with might and main to extend 
the Missouri Compromise line to the Pacific. By 1850 he had 
abandoned this cause as hopeless. That the legislation of 1850, 
in Douglas's mind, caused a change in the moral status of the 


Missouri Compromise can be shown from his speeches just before 
and after the mid-century "measures of adjustment." In 1849 
Douglas made the Springfield speech quoted at length by Lin- 
coln in his Peoria speech of 1854 ^d by the Republican Commit- 
tee in 1860. We give some leading passages: 

The Missouri Compromise had been in practical operation 
for about a quarter of a century, and had received the sanc- 
tion and approbation of men of all parties in every section 
of the Union. It had allayed all sectional jealousies and 
irritations growing out of this vexed question, and harmo- 
nized and tranquiLlzed the whole country ... it had its origin 
in the hearts of all patriotic men, who desired to preserve 
and perpetuate the blessings of our glorious Union an origin 
akin that of the Constitution of the United States, conceived 
in the same spirit of fraternal affection, and calculated to 
remove forever, the only danger, which seemed to threaten, 
at some distant day, to sever the social bond of Union. All 
the evidence of public opinion at that day, seemed to indicate 
that this Compromise had been canonized in the hearts of 
the American people, as a sacred thing which no ruthless 
hand would ever be reckless enough to disturb. 

Notice that Douglas says not a word about the function of the 
Missouri Compromise with respect to the extension of slavery. 
For him its wisdom consisted only in its soothing effect on sectional 
passions. When Douglas made this speech he had already been 
rebuffed in his efforts to extend the Missouri line. The "quarter 
of a century" referred to would have ended in 1846 at the out- 
break of the Mexican war. But it appears that he had not finally 
abandoned the attempt to utilize the Missouri legislation's prestige 
and was thus still trumpeting its supposed "sacredness." As we 
shall presently see, it was the Wilmot Proviso, according to Doug- 
las, which destroyed the halo about the Missouri line. But let us 
listen to Douglas, in a speech to the Senate in December 1851, 
reviewing his course in the troubled years ending with the 
Compromise of 1850: 

... I will take a brief review of my course on the whole 
slavery agitation, and show clearly and distinctly the princi- 
ples upon which my action upon the subject has always been 
governed. ... I have always opposed the introduction of the 


subject of slavery into the halls of Congress for any purpose 
either for discussion or action except in the cases enjoined 
by the Constitution of the United States, as in the case of 
the reclamation of fugitives from labor . . . When the stormy 
agitation arose in connection with the annexation of Texas, 
I originated and first brought forward the Missouri Compro- 
mise as applicable to that Territory, and had the gratification 
to see it incorporated in the bill which annexed Texas to 
the United States. I did not deem it a matter of much moment 
as applicable to Texas alone, but I did conceive it to be of 
vast importance in view of the probable acquisition of New 
Mexico and California. My preference for the Missouri Com- 
promise was predicated on the assumption that the whole 
people of the United States would be more easily reconciled 
to that measure than to any other mode of adjustment; and 
this assumption rested upon the fact that the Missouri Com- 
promise had been the means of an amicable settlement of 
a fearful controversy in 1821, which had been acquiesced 
in cheerfully and cordially by the people for more than a 
quarter of a century, and which all parties and sections of 
the Union professed to respect and cherish as a fair, just, and 
honorable settlement. I could discover no reason for the 
application of the Missouri line to all the territory owned 
by the United States in 1821 that would not apply with equal 
force to its extension to the Rio Grande and also to the 
Pacific, so soon as we should acquire the country. 

Douglas then detailed his struggle against the Wilmot Proviso, 
and his efforts to extend the Missouri line. The Wilmot Proviso 
was finally defeated by circumvention in the peace treaty. And 
the Senate, by a large majority, accepted Douglas's proposal to 
extend the Missouri line to the Pacific; but it was heavily de- 
feated in the House, where the Proviso men were largely in 
control. After that, Douglas told how he too finally "abandoned" 
the Missouri Compromise. This is of great moment, because in 
1854 *h e entire free-soil opinion of the nation reviled Douglas 
for asserting that the Compromise of 1850 had in any way touched 
the Missouri Compromise, that anyone in voting on New Mexico 
or Utah had ever dreamed the Missouri Compromise was in- 
volved. A major portion of Lincoln's Peoria speech is devoted 
to denouncing this proposition, as the inflammatory Appeal of 


the Independent Democrats had done almost at the moment the 
repeal was proposed. Moreover, the flat contradiction of Douglas 
by the free-soilers, and vice versa, is paralleled by equally flat 
contradictions, nearly a century later, by professional historians 
of the highest authority. First let us hear Douglas in 1851: 

At the opening of the next session [the second day of the 
Thirtieth Congress], upon consultation with the friends of 
the measure, it was generally conceded-with perhaps, here 
and there an individual exception that there was no hope 
left for the Missouri Compromise, and consequently some 
other plan of adjustment must be devised. I was reluctant 
to give up the Missouri Compromise, having been the first 
to bring it forward, and having struggled for it in both houses 
of Congress for about five years ... I gave it up reluctantly, 
to be sure and conceived the idea of a bill to admit Califor- 
nia as a State, leaving the people to form a constitution and 
settle the question of slavery afterwards to suit themselves 
. . . The great argument in favor of this bill was that it 
recognized the right of the people to determine all questions 
relating to their domestic concerns in their own way . . . 
Mr. President, I may be permitted here to pause and remark 
that, during the period of five years that I was laboring for 
the adoption of the Missouri Compromise, my votes on the 
Oregon question, and upon all incidental questions touching 
slavery, were given with reference to a settlement on that 
basis, and are consistent with it. 7 

Douglas, in retrospect, "gave up" the Missouri Compromise in 
1848. This might seem to contradict his praise of it in 1849. 
However, his first countermove was to propose the admission of 
the entire Mexican acquisition as the single state of California, 
only reserving the right to Congress, whenever it might choose 
to exercise it, to form new states out of any portion of California 
that lay east of the Sierra Nevada. This was a breath-taking 
proposal, and we must pause to consider it. We should recall 
it was made when the gold rush was already on. A "great revolu- 
tion has taken place in the prospects and condition of that country 
since the adjournment of the last session of Congress," Douglas 
said in making his proposal, and this revolution was such as made 
it all but impossible that any decision in favor of Negro slavery 
would ever be made by the hordes of settlers and prospectors, 


should Congress entrust them with that power. Slave property 
was of all chattels the least movable to new regions. When slavery 
spread in the United States, it was always from contiguous slave 
states, by a kind of natural extension of an existing economy. 
But California was now being reached mainly by the long sea 
route only later was it common to go overland. In any case, 
slaveowners had little or no incentive to risk expensive slaves in 
a distant region whose soil and climate were relatively untested 
in regard to slave staples. Moreover, this was a period when the 
old cotton kingdom was entering its greatest boom, when slaves 
could be sold or employed very profitably without the trouble 
or risk of sending them to such distant places as California. And, 
as noted above, there was cheap Mexican labor almost for the 
asking in California. Douglas was certain, far more certain than 
Webster ever had a right to be concerning New Mexico, that 
slavery would be forbidden in California if the settlers were left 
to decide the matter for themselves. 

But this was only one dimension of his proposal. The other 
was that, by making the whole Mexican acquisition one state, 
the decision against slavery taken by the settlers on the Pacific 
coast would automatically be extended over the whole of the 
remaining Mexican acquisition, or what became the territories 
of Utah and New Mexico. In short, Douglas's proposal was an 
indirect but an almost certainly more effective anti-slavery pro- 
posal than the Wilmot Proviso itself! Although it contained no 
promise such as the Wilmot Proviso attempted, that the states 
Congress might later choose to carve out of California east of the 
Sierra Nevada would exclude slavery a promise he believed 
could not have been fulfilled if challenged, since Congress had 
no constitutional right to make it it would have absolutely pre- 
cluded such a thing as the New Mexican territorial slave code 
of 1859. Indeed, Douglas s proposal would have cut almost the 
whole Gordian knot of constitutional entanglements with the 
slavery questions. It would have ended all controversy concerning 
the effect of the Mexican law against slavery; it would have 
ended the dispute over whether the Constitution automatically 
carried slavery into the former Mexican provinces or automati- 
cally excluded it; it would have ended the question of whether, 
among the "rightful subjects" to which the territorial legislative 
powers extended, slavery was included. It would probably also 
have deprived the Dred Scott decision, in advance, of most of its 


power for mischief. It is hardly credible that there would have 
been half the concern that slavery might enter Nebraska, if it 
had already been excluded from the lands south and west of it 
By skipping the territorial period for the whole Mexican ac- 
quisition, and not only the area later included in California, 
it would have made the California interdiction of slavery in the 
entire Mexican acquisition as undeniably constitutional as that 
which forbade it in New York or Massachusetts. This was stronger 
anti-slavery medicine than the Northwest Ordinance or the Mis- 
souri prohibition. It is strange that this, Douglas's most extreme 
anti-slavery proposal, was never cited by the Republicans to 
illustrate the extent of his later tergiversations. Perhaps the reason 
is that the Wilmot Proviso men the predecessors of the anti- 
Nebraska men did not rally to Douglas's support; for they were 
still intent upon the direct interdiction of slavery and not satisfied 
to accept it as a result of popular sovereignty. That Calhoun was 
cold is understandable. The measure received little support and 
was killed by the Senate judiciary committee. 

It is desirable now to estimate the merit of Douglas's previous 
espousal of the extension of the Missouri Compromise line. This 
too had an anti-slavery aspect denied to it by Lincoln, for exam- 
ple, in his Peoria speech. For the extension of the line would 
have placed slavery under a categorical ban in all of the Utah 
Territory and would have pushed the northern boundary of New 
Mexico Territory down a degree and a half. It would also, in all 
likelihood, have caused California to be divided into two states. 
That, however, would have meant two free states instead of one, 
since there was no difference between northern and southern 
Califomians concerning the desirability of slavery. But further: 
the extension of the Missouri Compromise line to the Pacific 
would have meant a ban on slavery north of the line, while it 
would not have done more than make slavery optional south of 
the line. Now Lincoln said that he, in common with all Wilmot 
Proviso stalwarts in the House, had steadily refused to support 
the extension of the Missouri line because, by implication, it gave 
up the territory south of it to slavery. Yet Lincoln's kader, Clay, 
was chief architect of the Compromise of 1850, and Lincoln 
eventually gave that Compromise at least tacit approval. And 
the Compromise of 1850 opened all of Utah Territory and 01 
of New Mexico Territory to slavery, to as great an extent as 


Douglas had proposed to open to slavery only that part of New 

Mexico which lay south of sG'ao". In short, the Wilmot Proviso 
men Lincoln included, for he was in the House voting against 
Douglas's proposed extension during his one term in Congress 
eventually settled for, or were forced to accept, less than half the 
loaf that Douglas had originally offered them. This must certainly 
be kept in mind when evaluating Douglas's assertion, after the 
repeal, that he had been faithful to the Missouri Compromise 
when its supposed supporters had deserted it. 

Chapter VI 

The Repeal of the Missouri 
Compromise II 


THE Appeal of the Independent Democrats in Congress to the 
People of the United States, which fired the train attached to 
the powder keg of anti-slavery passion in the free states, is re- 
printed in the Congressional Globe under the date of January 
19, 1854. To it is appended a note, presumably added on or after 
January 23, since it responds to amendments to Douglas's revised 
Nebraska bill which were reported only on that date. The note, 
which follows, sets forth the bitter core of the controversy, thus: 

The amended Nebraska bill, introduced by Mr. Douglas 
[i.e., the bill introduced as a substitute for the Dodge bill 
on January 4, 1854], was promptly printed at length in the 
Washington Sentinel As printed, it did not meet the views 
of certain southern gentlemen, and it was then discovered 
that an important declaratory section, legislating into the bill 
the principles of the compromise [of 1850] had been omit- 
ted by a clerical error. Even after this remarkable clerical 
error had been rectified, the bill was unsatisfactory, and now 
Mr. Douglas proposes more amendments to divide the Ter- 
ritory into two: to charge the Treasury with the expense of 
two Territorial Governments; to strike out the clerical error 
section, and insert elsewhere in the bill a clause excepting 
from the laws of the United States, extended over the Terri- 


tory, the Missouri prohibition. The proposed amendment will 
read thus: 

"That the Constitution, and all laws of the United States, 
which are not locally inapplicable, shall have the same force 
and effect within die said Territory of Nebraska as else- 
where within the United States, except the eighth section 
of the act preparatory to the admission of Missouri into the 
Union, approved March 6, 1820, which was superseded by 
the principles of the legislation of 1850, commonly catted the 
compromise measures, and is hereby declared inoperative." 

This amendment is a manifest falsification of the truth of 
history, as is shown in the body of the foregoing address. Not 
a man in Congress or out of Congress, in 1850, pretended 
that the compromise measures would repeal the Missouri 
prohibition. Mr. Douglas himself never advanced such a 
pretence until this session. His own Nebraska Bill of last 
session rejected it. It is a sheer afterthought. To declare 
the prohibition inoperative, may, indeed, have effect in law 
as a repeal, but it a most discreditable way of reaching the 
object Will the people permit their dearest interests to be 
thus made the mere hazards of a presidential game, and 
destroyed by false facts and false inferences? 

We observe that the original "repeal" clause only declared the 
Missouri Compromise "superseded" and hence "inoperative," al- 
though in its final form die bill added "and void." Concerning 
the "truth of history," we now summon two recent witnesses. Allan 
Nevins writes as follows: 1 

One essential question of fact was raised by Douglas's bill 
and the accompanying report. Had Congress, applying the 
popular sovereignty principle to the newly conquered and 
peculiar region of New Mexico and Utah, really intended 
universal application of that principle to all areas not yet 
organized? Had it intended a repeal of the long-revered, the 
supposedly inviolable, Missouri Compromise? If it had, then 
most members of Congress in 1850 had grossly deceived 
themselves. Douglas had not once hinted during the debates 
of 1850 that the new Compromise altered the position of 
the huge unorganized area of the Missouri Valley. 


And again: 

The thinness of Douglas's arguments of precedence, the ob- 
vious shiftiness and subterfuge of his course, inspired instant 
question of his motives. 

And finally: 2 

As for Douglas's statement that the Utah-New Mexico legis- 
lation in the Compromise of 1850 had established a new 
"principle" which must be extended to all other territories, 
this was simply dishonest. 

But with regard to the identical "question of fact," we find 
Professor Randall taking an exactly contrary position. In his com- 
mentary on the debates, Randall writes: 3 

. . . they [Lincoln and Douglas] were concentrating on the 
question whether Federal prohibition of slavery in western 
territories, having been dropped after full discussion in 1850, 
should be revived as if it were the only means of dealing with 
the highly improbable chance that human bondage would 
ever take root in such places as Kansas, Nebraska, or New 

Randall's language is even stronger than Douglas's in his original 
repeal clause, in which, as noted, Douglas only said that the 1850 
legislation had "superseded" the Missouri Compromise, rendering 
it "inoperative." Randall says flatly that the federal prohibition 
of slavery in "western territories," by which he explicitly means 
Kansas and Nebraska as well as New Mexico, was "dropped" 
in 1850. Now we do not know anyone, least of all Professor Nevins, 
who would suggest that Professor Randall ever dishonestly or 
manifestly falsified the truth of history. Is not Randall's endorse- 
ment of Douglas's interpretation of the 1850 compromise, in the 
face of Nevins's equally unqualified acceptance of the Inde- 
pendent Democrats', a manifest sign that the "truth of history ' 
is open to manifestly opposite interpretations and that the "facts" 
speak differently to different men? 

As to the charge that "not a man in Congress or out of Con- 
gress" pretended that the 1850 measures affected the status of 
the 1820 law, the reply depends upon whether one thinks in nar- 
rowly legalistic or broadly political terms. We have seen that 
Douglas declared in 1851 that the 1850 measures were predi- 


cated upon the abandonment of the Missouri Compromise. To be 
sure, Douglas referred technically to the non-extension of the line 
to the Pacific. But when he said that he "could discover no reason 
for the application of the Missouri line to all the territory owned 
by the United States in 1821 that would not apply with equal 
force to its extension ... to the Pacific," the inference is almost 
inescapable that its non-extension had a broader bearing on the 
whole sectional controversy than what was involved in determin- 
ing the fate of Utah or New Mexico. Whether or not Douglas 
was correct in his judgment of the equal applicability of the 
Missouri line to the two acquisitions, it is consistent with this 
belief to regard the refusal to extend the line as tantamount to 
its "supersession." 

The 1820 line, as Douglas saw it, attempted so to divide the 
national territory that the public mind in the free states would 
be satisfied that there was in federal law a guarantee that, of the 
future states applying for admission, no less than half, in all 
probability, would apply with constitutions prohibiting slavery. 
It was a guarantee that the free states would not be outnumbered 
by the slave states. Now by 1850 opinion in these same free states 
was utterly unwilling to accept this kind of guarantee, although 
the Senate, in which the slave states were relatively more power- 
ful, was willing to give it. Why had free-state opinion shifted? 
Had it not done so because the free states, having grown relatively 
far more powerful in wealth and numbers, felt able to strike a 
better intersectional bargain? Moreover, were not the anti-slavery 
forces in the free states better organized and more militant? Did 
not Douglas express a free-soil attitude when he said privately 
to young George McConnel that to dispense with a dividing line 
meant a "step toward freedom," because slavery could "no longer 
crouch behind a line which Freedom could not cross"? As noted 
above, the legal situation created by the Missouri line did not 
forbid freedom on its southern side. What the law did was only 
to forbid slavery to the north, while making it optional to the 
south. Technically, that is, popular sovereignty ruled south of the 
line. But the legal situation was not the real one, as is shown 
by Lincoln's understanding that the line in fact reserved the lands 
to the south of it for slavery. This was why, as Lincoln said in his 
Peoria speech, the Wilmot Proviso men in the House would not 
accept the extension of the Missouri line to the Pacific: they would 
not, by implication, give up any new lands to slavery; they were 


bent upon having them att free. But was this not an implied 
endorsement of Douglas's interpretation of 1850? If free-state 
men preferred having no line in new territory because a line 
meant giving some lands up to slavery by implication, why should 
they not prefer no line in aid territory, where the "supersession" 
of die line would mean that freedom could, in all the confidence 
of its new strength (for this was, remember, an "age of progress"), 
wrest the unorganized lands south of 36'3o"? It is true that the 
Proviso men, as such, never gave the 1850 measures unqualified 
support, and many fought the fugitive law to the bitter end. Yet 
moderate anti-slavery men like Lincoln, accepting Clay's and 
Webster's leadership and, moreover, seeing California made ir- 
retrievably free by local action, as Douglas ceaselessly pointed out 
had in fact acquiesced to popular sovereignty in New Mexico 
and Utah, as they had not done in the extension of the line. As 
Douglas interpreted 1850, free-soil opinion in the free states had 
then deemed the chances of freedom better everywhere under 
popular sovereignty than under a dividing line which, by implica- 
tion, gave up almost half the territories to slavery. 

We thus see how Douglas, long before 1854, expressed his 
understanding that popular sovereignty had "superseded" the 
Missouri Compromise in 1850. In a precise sense, the Missouri 
Compromise line, as a device for settling the slavery question in 
the Mexican acquisition, was all that had been superseded. But 
in politics, the narrow sense of an expression of such import can 
easily glide into a larger sense without contradicting the general 
understanding of its meaning. Of course "supersession" is not re- 
peal, and the story of how supersession was transformed into 
repeal remains to be told. For the present, we maintain only that 
the language Douglas used in 1851 to explain the course he had 
recently followed sufficiently justifies his statement in 1854 that 
the abandonment of the Missouri Compromise as a device for 
dealing with slavery in the former Mexican provinces constituted, 
in his view, its supersession. 

As evidence of the political intelligibility of this terminology, 
we recall its ready acceptance by Professor Randall. The present 
writer asked that eminent scholar, in the year before his death, 
precisely what he had meant when he said that federal prohibi- 
tion of slavery in western territories had been "dropped" in 1830, 
since the Missouri Compromise was not repealed until 1854, nor 


declared unconstitutional until 1857. I n a repty dated December 

1952, he wrote that what he intended "was merely the obvious 
fact that the proposal to pass a national law prohibiting slavery 
in all [emphasis by Randall] the territories was not adopted. 
This proposal," the letter continued, "favored by the Liberty and 
Free Soil parties, and later by the Republican party, seems reason- 
able and proper to us now, and is strengthened by admiration 
for Lincoln, but in 1850 and in the decade of the fifties there 
was virtually no chance that such a law could be passed by 
Congress." Now a purist might object that something cannot be 
"dropped" before it has been raised, and that no federal barrier 
against slavery had been erected in Utah or New Mexico. The 
Wilmot Proviso men, morever, had not sought a national law 
against slavery in all the nation's territories, but only in the newly 
acquired ones. This at least is affirmed by Lincoln in the Peoria 

The most conclusive argument, however, that, while voting 
for the Wilmot Proviso, and while voting against the extension 
of the Missouri line, we never thought of disturbing the 
original Missouri Compromise, is found in the fact that there 
was then, and still is, an unorganized tract of fine country, 
nearly as large as the state of Missouri, lying immediately 
west of Arkansas, and south of the Missouri Compromise 
line [the present state of Oklahoma]; and that we never 
attempted to prohibit slavery in it ... In all our struggles 
to prohibit slavery within our Mexican acquisitions, we never 
so much as lifted a finger to prohibit it, as to this tract. 4 

Clearly, Professor Randall saw the matter through Douglas's and 
not Lincoln's eyes. The legislation of 1850, as Douglas and Randall 
saw it, was a solution of the question of slavery in "all" the terri- 
tories, because the struggle of 1850 involved the whole political 
question of the future status of slavery in the Union. Moreover, 
Professor Randall's apparent confusion of the struggle over the 
Mexican territories with "all" the territories reproduces precisely 
the ambiguity contained in Douglas's "supersession" thesis. And 
in this ambiguity is contained one of the strongest justifications 
of Douglas's policy in this period: for by opening Nebraska to 
slavery, however hypothetical^, it also opened to freedom much 
less hypothetically the future Oklahoma, which would have re- 
mained written off to slavery by the precisionist Lincoln. 


Douglas, as we have seen, constantly identified the Missouri 
Compromise with the line of sG^o" and treated the line as if it 
were the "principle" of that compromise. In the same way he 
found the popular-sovereignty provisions of the Utah and New 
Mexico territorial bills to contain the "principle" of the Compro- 
mise of 1850. Lincoln categorically denied that either the line 
or the aforesaid provisions constituted any kind of principle what- 
ever. Regarding the first, he said (in the Peoria speech): 

Another fact showing the specific character of the Missouri 
law showing that it intended no more than it expressed 
showing that the line was not intended as a universal dividing 
line between free and slave territory, present and prospective 
north of which slavery could never go is the fact that by 
that very law, Missouri came in as a slave state, north of the 
line. If that law contained any prospective principle, the 
whole law must be looked to in order to ascertain what that 
principle was. And by this rule, the South could fairly con- 
tend that inasmuch as they got one slave state north of the 
line at the inception of the law, they have the right to another 
given them north of it occasionally now and then in the 
indefinite westward extension of the line. This demonstrates 
the absurdity of attempting to deduce a prospective princi- 
ple from the Missouri Compromise line. 5 

But does Lincoln succeed in his demonstration? All the parts of 
the Missouri Compromise may have been specific, yet all the facts 
together must have been justified by some principle or prin- 
ciples, for the compromise to deserve the respect of principled 
men. And the justification of the Missouri Compromise was 
assuredly that it preserved the Union while placing definite limits 
to the number and extent of future slave states to be formed 
upon the national domain. In the Missouri Compromise the 
admission of Missouri was balanced by the admission of Maine. 
Yet Maine was not a weighty desideratum, for the reason that 
its admission could not have been indefinitely delayed solely be- 
cause it was a free state. Certainly it was the prohibition of any 
further slave states north of the line of 36'ao" that was the true 
price exacted by the free states for Missouri's admission. That 
Missouri itself lay north of the line may be viewed less as a sign 
of the absence of any principle embodied in the line than as an 
unprincipled exception to which the free states were compelled 


because of their relative weakness in 1820-21. For the Missouri 
Compromise was in fact a very poor bargain from an anti-slavery 
point of view. Not only was Missouri north of the line but, as we 
have seen, the adoption of a line contained an implied acquies- 
cence in slavery in all states to be formed south of it. Arkansas, 
south of the line, had been organized in 1819 and was, in 1820, 
a much nearer candidate for admission than any territory likely 
to be organized north of it. Arkansas did come into the Union, 
in 1836, while Iowa was not admitted until 1846, and Minnesota 
was not even given territorial organization until 1849. If the bird 
in hand is twice as valuable, then the slave states certainly re- 
ceived the greater consideration. 

But what of the vast unorganized wilderness not yet known 
in 1820 as Nebraska? We recall our assertion in Chapter IV 
that no one before the Mexican War, and assuredly no one 
in 1820, had certain (or even probable) knowledge that the 
organization of states would proceed beyond a single tier on the 
west bank of the Mississippi. If this had remained the case there 
never would have been more than two free states north of Missouri 
to balance the three slave states on the west bank. In a recent 
study of the Missouri controversy, Professor Glover Moore 6 sur- 
veys opinion in 1820-21 in quest of an answer to whether the 
South favored and the North opposed the compromise because it 
was thought the North's share was a worthless desert. The answer 
to this question is a decided negative. It was generally believed 
that the soil and climate of the region were healthy and fruitful. 
Professor Moore does not raise directly the question we would 
have liked answered; namely, whether the North or South ex- 
pected free states in anything like the number that eventually 
resulted north of the line. He adduces a wide scattering of views, 
but nothing to suggest a widespread public expectation of future 
free states except directly north of Missouri; i.e., from the lands 
from which Iowa and Minnesota were to come. In view of the 
strong conservative opposition to territorial expansion as repre- 
sented by men like Webster, and the fact that the lands beyond 
the west bank were secured "in perpetuity" to the Indians, it is 
unlikely that general opinion could have foreseen more than the 
two free states as consequences of the Missouri Compromise. It 
is almost inconceivable that the South would have given it the 
support it did for the Missouri Compromise resulted from an 
overwhelming majority of southern votes combined with a small 


minority of northern ones had a procession of another half dozen 
free states been contemplated. What the Republicans were one 
day to insist was "nominated in the bond," if it was so nominated, 
must have been in exceedingly fine print in 1820. It is one of the 
ironies of history that the tremendous expansion of the forties, 
which received much of its impulse from the desire for new lands 
for slavery, transformed the old Missouri Compromise into a far 
more favorable anti-slavery bargain than it could reasonably have 
been supposed to be at the time it was made! This suggests an 
explanation of the sanctity that it achieved in the eyes of a man 
like Lincoln. But it also suggests a moral if not a technical legal 
justification for Douglas's attempt to identify the Missouri Com- 
promise with the Missouri line. For, as we have shown, the 
employment of the line at the end of the Mexican War was far 
more favorable to the free-soil cause than its original employment 
had been. The principle that would have justified its original 
employment if any did would thus certainly seem to have 
justified its extension. And if this is true, then was not Douglas 
justified, in virtue of the familiar shorthand vocabulary of politics, 
in identifying the principle with its application? 

Lincoln similarly denied that any new principle had been 
established by the 1850 compromises which superseded the 
alleged Missouri "principle." 

The particular part of those measures [Lincoln said in the 
Peoria speech], for [sic] which the virtual repeal of the 
Missouri Compromise is sought to be inferred (for it is ad- 
mitted they contain nothing about it, in express terms) is the 
provision in the Utah and New Mexico laws, which permits 
them when they seek admission into the Union as States, to 
come in with or without slavery as they shall then see fit Now 
I insist this provision was made for Utah and New Mexico, 
and for no other place whatever. It had no more direct 
reference to Nebraska than it had to the territories of the 
moon. But, say they, it had reference to Nebraska, in princi- 
ple. Let us see. The North consented to this provision, not 
because they considered it right in itself; but because they 
were compensated-paid for it-They, at the same time got 
California into the Union as a free State. This was far the 
best part of all they had struggled for by the Wilmot Proviso. 


They also got the area of slavery somewhat narrowed in the 
settlement of the boundary of Texas. Also, they got the slave 
trade abolished in the District of Columbia. For all these 
desirable objects the North could afford to yield something; 
and they did yield to the South the Utah and New Mexico 
provisions. 7 

But the inference that Lincoln permits in this passage, that the 
Utah and New Mexico provision was a sheer concession by the 
free states, is a possible but not a necessary inference. The North 
made another concession in 1850, which Lincoln duly recorded 
in an earlier account of the 1850 compromise in this same Peoria 
speech. It was a concession that achieved a far greater contem- 
porary notoriety; namely, the new Fugitive Slave Law. The 
abolition of the slave trade in the District of Columbia and the 
reduction of Texas's boundaries were more than paid for, in most 
northern eyes, by the infernal statute that paid a federal judge 
five dollars for setting an alleged fugitive free and ten dollars for 
declaring him an escaped slave. But what of California? Did the 
North really have to "pay" an additional price for California in 
the form of the popular-sovereignty provisions of the Utah and 
New Mexico laws? Zachary Taylor never thought so, nor did 
William H. Seward. And Stephen A. Douglas did not think so 
when he proposed bringing the entire Mexican acquisition into 
the Union as the state of California. And, as we have already 
stressed, the extension of the Missouri line to the Pacific would 
have involved acquiescence in California's (or the Calif ornias') 
statehood without as much concession to slavery as had been 
made in 1820-21. In short, it is not necessary to regard the 1850 
territorial laws, as Lincoln regarded them, as a concession by the 
North. Or, if they are to be so regarded, the concession can be 
attributed to the Wilmot Proviso men (of whom Lincoln was 
a stalwart), who had raised the South's price for the admission 
of California by refusing to accept it without imposing terms 
humilating to the slave states. 

We have argued that, by a legitimate construction of Douglas's 
pre-i854 statements, he was justified in his subsequent assertion 
that the measures of adjustment of 1850 had "superseded" the 
Missouri Compromise. Yet it would be unnecessary and unwise 
to claim that what existed as a possible and legitimate construction 


existed contemporaneously as a clear-cut public understanding. 
Douglas gave what might be called a creative interpretation of 
1850 (including his own role therein), an interpretation sup- 
ported by the facts, which nonetheless brought the facts of 1850 
into a focus different from that of 1850, a focus designed for 
1854. As we shall see, this was just what Lincoln did with the 
anti-slavery policy of the Founding Fathers. Lincoln assumed that 
a subordinate aspect of their thoughts and measures would have 
retained the same value had it become paramount But Lincoln 
did not know what sacrifices Jefferson or Washington would have 
made for their anti-slavery convictions if the price of maintaining 
them had been enormously increased. Jefferson, in particular, 
wavered woefully in his last years. At the time of the Missouri 
crisis in 1820, he took a distinctly southern position, looking upon 
the anti-slavery agitation in the North as a Federalist plot to 
break up the political dynasty he had founded in i8oo 8 and 
which had ruled unchallenged thereafter. In particular, he ac- 
cepted the "diffusionist" thesis, that allowing slavery to spread 
into new country such as Missouri did not tend to its perpetuation 
but only spread it "thinner." Lincoln was to blast and wither 
this argument and to heap upon it his bitterest contempt. But 
its connection with Jefferson is carefully concealed; only senti- 
ments worthy of the hero of the Declaration and the patron of 
the Northwest Ordinance are presented to our view. Lincoln does 
much the same with Henry Clay, who had no real connection 
with the slavery restriction in the Missouri Compromise. All that 
Clay actually did was to get the slave state of Missouri into the 
Union in 1821 while free-soil opinion in the North was still resist- 
ing its admission because of the discrimination against free Ne- 
groes in Missouri's constitution. Others had got the slavery restric- 
tion written into the enabling act of 1820. A few of Clay's eloquent 
moral condemnations of slavery are quoted by Lincoln over and 
over again. But the policy that Lincoln framed, and adorned with 
famous names, was his own. Both Lincoln and Douglas sought 
precedents for what they wanted, and the precedents were worth 
little more than what they wanted them for. Each had independ- 
ent arguments sufficient to convince himself, but in politics it is 
a good rule not to appear to do anything for the first time. History 
as precedent is an essential ingredient of political life; it is often 
a necessary condition of such stability and intelligibility as politics 
aspire to. Yet the discovery by the true statesman of the 


right precedents is as much an act of imaginative perception 
as that whereby any great teller of old tales renews the life of a 
people for the present and the future by a vision of the past. 

Supersession, we have observed, is not synonymous with repeal. 
Douglas, we say, intended to "supersede" the Missouri Compro- 
mise in 1854 but not to repeal it. That distinction now requires 
elaboration and explanation. What we believe is that Douglas 
intended in 1854 that repeal of the Missouri Compromise remain 
a possible inference, in the same way that supersession of the 
Missouri Compromise was, in 1850, a possible inference from the 
Compromise of 1850. What would remain as a possible inference 
in 1854 m ight then be presented as a necessary inference on some 
future occasion, when the practical question would not involve 
lands north of 36'so". 

What Douglas sought above all else in January 1854 was * 
make the doctrine of popular sovereignty, which had been an 
article of languid party faith since Cass's Nicholson letter in the 
'48 campaign, into a passionate creed. Hitherto it had been 
strongly held only by the northwestern Democracy; Cass was 
senator from Michigan. As a party doctrine for resolving the 
slavery controversy, and for laying the foundation for an American 
empire, popular sovereignty was something of a novelty. 

Its aptness for American party politics lay in its shrewd turning 
to political advantage of some of the deepest-rooted American 
traditions. TocqueviUe's Democracy in America was written on 
the basis of observations made during the formative years of 
Lincoln's and Douglas's adolescence and early manhood. And 
Tocqueville began his study, not with the federal government, 
but with the states. And the key to understanding the states he 
found in the township. 

The form of the Federal government of the United States 
was the last to be adopted; and it is in fact nothing more 
than a summary of those republican principles which were 
current in the whole community before it existed, and in- 
dependently of its existence . . . The great political princi- 
ples which now govern American society undoubtedly took 
their origin and their growth in the state ... It is not without 
intention that I begin this subject with the township . . . 
municipal institutions constitute the strength of free nations. 


Town meetings are to liberty what primary schools are to 
science; they bring it within the people's reach, they teach 
men how to use and how to enjoy it. A nation may establish 
a free government, but without municipal institutions it can- 
not have the spirit of liberty. 9 

What Douglas meant to do was to appeal to the spirit of, and 
attachment to, the principles of town-meeting democracy as a way 
of removing the slavery incubus from American politics. In Illinois 
itself, this spirit had been appealed to successfully as settlers from 
the Northeast and the South had clashed on the subject of town- 
ship versus county government. The Illinois constitution of 1847, 
allowing local options, had reconciled these conflicting demands. 
As already noted, the moral condemnation of slavery emanated 
largely from the evangelical movement in radical Protestantism, 
itself in large measure a re-creation of the Puritan spirit But the 
town meeting was a secular by-product of the congregational 
form of church government which characterized the Puritan 
bodies in old New England. The profound attractiveness of the 
popular-sovereignty idea lay in its seizing upon the old and deep 
connection of the idea of morality with the idea of local self- 
government. This connection might thus be used to neutralize, if 
not to defeat, the moral fervor of the anti-slavery crusade emanat- 
ing from other roots in that same tradition. The spirit of local 
independence had, of course, received new vitality from the 
conditions of western community life. It was not the aristocratic 
families of the old South who tended to migrate the ones who 
ruled their counties like English squires and, we might add, were 
probably more accustomed to episcopal than congregational 
church government. To them popular sovereignty was anathema, 
as it was to the abolitionists, who meant to impose their moral 
ideas in the spirit of Cromwell's saints. But Douglas believed 
it in accordance with that spirit of moderation and mutual trust 
which alone made democratic government possible. 

One further point, by way of prologue to the analysis of Doug- 
las's Senate report: that is to remark upon the congeniality in 
public opinion of the doctrine of popular sovereignty, as a loosely 
held general idea, and the Missouri Compromise. We have seen 
that Douglas advocated and believed in the effective adoption 
of popular sovereignty in the territorial legislation of 1850, yet also 
believed in the continued legal effect of the Mexican anti-slavery 


law. In Missouri, in November 1853, where excitement over 
Nebraska was then keenest and where Thomas Hart Benton, anti- 
slavery leader of the state's Democracy, was locked in political 
death battle with the pro-slavery Democratic leader David 
Atchison, we find resolutions passed at meetings of Benton's 
partisans that ". . . we are in favor of the people who go there 
[Nebraska] and settle to determine the question as to whether 
it shall be a slave or free state"; and, almost in the same breath, 
that *. . . we are opposed to the agitation of the slavery question 
in the organization of this Territory by any attempt to repeal 
the Missouri Compromise." 10 Of course popular opinion before 
the repeal was hardly conscious that the 1850 laws were silent 
as to whether the people who went to the Southwest to settle 
and decide in favor of free or slave states might go with or without 
slaves. The public, not yet instructed by Douglas in the nature 
of the differences undecided in 1850, permitted itself to desire 
and believe in things that were presently to appear incompatible. 
Yet we must emphasize the extent to which general opinion, and 
in particular free-soil opinion, on the eve of Douglas's Nebraska 
bill of 1854, was prepared to respond to the popular-sovereignty 
appeal, without any sense of jar to its attachment to the Missouri 

Chapter VII 

The Repeal of the Missouri 
Compromise III 

JANUARY 4, 1854 

OF ALL criticisms of Douglas's course in 1854, none appears on 
its face to be more devastating than that drawn from the evidence 
of the 1853 Nebraska bill. "In 1853," said Lincoln at Peoria, "a bill 
to give [Nebraska] a territorial government passed the House of 
Representatives [by a vote of 98 to 43, with 20 affirmative votes 
from slave states], and, in the hands of Judge Douglas, failed 
of passing the Senate only for want of time. This bill contained 
no repeal of the Missouri Compromise. Indeed, when it was 
assailed because it did not contain such repeal, Judge Douglas 
defended it in its existing form." 1 In the principal Senate speech 
for the 1853 bill Senator Atchison of Missouri had spoken thus: 

Now, sir, I am free to admit at this moment, at this hour, 
and for all time to come, I should oppose the organization 
or the settlement of that Territory unless my constituents 
and the constituents of the whole South, of the slave States 
of the Union, could go into it upon the same footing, with 
equal rights and equal privileges, carrying that species of 
property with them . . . Yes, sir, I acknowledge that that 
would have governed me, but I have no hope that the re- 
striction will ever be repealed. 2 

Because, Atchison continued, the tide of population would roll 
over the Nebraska frontier in defiance of law, unless law was 


provided, it was as well to organize the territory now as later. 
As to its chances, Atchison spoke thus: 

I trust now that the bill will be taken up, and that we will act 
upon it and pass it ... The President will sign it, as a matter 
of course, if he signs any of the appropriation bills. There is 
no question about that We have votes enough, and I have no 
doubt but there is a majority of the Senate in favor of the 
organization of the Territory of Nebraska, if you will only 
give us an opportunity to vote. 8 

And Douglas, concluding the discussion in the early hours of 
the morning of March 4, 1853 (Franklin Pierce was to be in- 
augurated at noon), remarked: 

I have merely said as much as was necessary to vindicate 
the action of the Committee; and now I should be delighted 
if the Senate, by common consent, would unite and pass 
die bill; for if it be taken up, I am sure it will be passed. My 
fears are that it will not be taken up. 4 

Douglas's fears were justified. The bill was never voted upon. 
On a motion to lay it on the table, the vote was yeas 23, nays 17. 
A shift of four votes and the tempest of the year following, in 
which the Republican party was born, might have been avertedl 
According to George Fort Milton, "Once more Southern opposi- 
tion kept a Territory from being organized," for the bill, he says, 
was set aside by "an almost exclusively sectional vote." 6 However, 
this is misleading, for among those voting to shelve the bill were 
senators from Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, New York, Vermont, 
and Connecticut And a third of the Senate was absent, including 
some of the strongest free-soilers. Even more difficult to under- 
stand, in the ligfrt of the Atchison speech, is Professor Randall's 
statement 6 that "the Missouri Compromise . . . was in 1854 
beyond the sphere of practical politics," or that "anti-slavery 
people . . . had no better chance in 1854 ^^^ &&* offered by 
the Douglas bill . . .^ Professor Randall seems, again, to be con- 
fusing the political effort needed to re-enact the Missouri Com- 
promise restriction with what was needed merely to leave it alone. 
As to the "chance" offered by the Kansas-Nebraska bill, the 
question is why Douglas did not simply report the Dodge bill, 
introduced in December 1853, which was Ate same bill he had 
supported the previous March. In this connection we reproduce 


the following interesting colloquy that took place during those 
after-midnight hours of March 4, 1853, when that early Nebraska 
bill was so unfortunately set aside. Almost the whole discussion, 
we should mention, had concerned the rights of Indians in 
Nebraska, an issue which could be, and was, discussed by 
northern and southern men as if no sectional question were in- 

MR. ADAMS. I know that my friend from Illinois is a good 
compromise man, and I wish to propose to him a compromise 
on this subject, and that is, that by common consent it be 
postponed until the Friday after the first Monday of Decem- 
ber next, when we shall have ample time and opportunity 
to discuss and investigate it; and if we think it right we can 
then pass the bill. 

ME. DOUGLAS. I must remind my friend from Mississippi that 
eight years ago, when he and I were members of the House 
of Representatives, I was then pressing the Nebraska bill, 
and I have ever since been pressing it I have tried to get it 
through for eight long years. I would take it as much more 
kind if my friend should propose that by common consent 
we take up and pass the bill. The members of the body are 
in very good humor, all having got what they have wanted 
except the Territories. I hope we shall do something for 
them. 8 

This passage is extremely revealing of the vastly different atmos- 
phere surrounding the 1853 bill. Douglas even had hopes of 
slipping it through by common consent, without a roll-call vote, 
in the rush of adjournment business! His reference to "eight long 
years" is factually correct, although it must have been said without 
any great sense of urgency. Douglas had not said a word about 
Nebraska in Congress for tie last several of those eight years. 
But most significant of all is the expectation, voiced by Adams 
of Mississippi, that the bill might be taken up the following 
December and passed without much difficulty after the matters 
under debate mostly concerning the Indians could be ironed 

Now there may, of course* have been more opposition to the 
1853 bill than Douglas and Atdbison in 1853 or Lincoln in 1854 
admitted. It was natural for Douglas and Atchison to exaggerate 


the support the bill had, as an argument for bringing it to a vote. 
They had a common interest in such a bill, since a chain of 
territorial governments in mid-continent would make possible 
central and/or northern railroad routes to the Pacific. While Ne- 
braska was closed, the only organized territories across which such 
roads could be built lay between Texas and southern California. 
And Atchison and Douglas represented the interests of St. Louis 
and Chicago. Conservative pro-slavery menthe great Whig 
slaveowners who had opposed the Mexican Warnever desired 
the repeal of the Missouri Compromise. They much preferred 
to keep Nebraska closed, both as a means of keeping out new 
free states and because the southern railroad route meant an 
economic advantage to the South. Moreover, they still maintained 
their alliance with the millowners, the "cotton Whigs" of the North. 
Crocodile tears could always be shed for the Indians as a way 
of opposing the organization of new territories. And here we note 
a constitutional eccentricity whose influence is imponderable but 
may have been great. To admit settlers lawfully into Nebraska, 
it was necessary to extinguish Indian claims, which encompassed 
virtually the entire region. We need not enter the maze of com- 
plicated interactions of municipal and international law, but only 
note that new treaties might have been necessary to extinguish 
the claims, and new treaties could be defeated in the Senate 
by one third plus one of the votes. 

Sometime in the intervening ten months Douglas certainly de- 
cided that a completely new approach to the Nebraska question 
was in order. He may have felt that only a new approach, which 
would create a positive nationwide interest in the measure, could 
overwhelm the "old fogies" North and South. In our judgment, 
that interest was to be created, not so much by specific expecta- 
tions with regard to Nebraska the demands of prospective 
homesteaders and the railroad interests, for example, were not 
enough but by the erection of popular sovereignty, as we have 
said, into a national dogma. And popular sovereignty, thus canon- 
ized, would be the basis in national opinion upon which a policy 
for action in a much broader field than Nebraska might be 
erected. As we have argued in the chapter on Manifest Destiny, 
Douglas had during these months become disappointed with 
Pierce's leadership, and the party was tearing itself to pieces. 
The Whig party had supplied the chief leadership, in Clay and 
Webster, for the 1850 compromise. But the Whig party had been 


dealt a death blow by outraged free-soil opinion as a consequence. 
The tensions which destroyed the WMgs were now racking the 
Democrats, particularly in the North. Something dramatic had 
to be done. Douglas, we have said, determined upon the greatest 
assertion of political leadership possible to a Senate chairman of 
the Committee on Territories. This could not have been accom- 
plished by the mere endorsement of the old Nebraska bill. 
Moreover, the opening of the Thirty-third Congress was the first 
under a Democratic administration since the retirement of Polk, 
and the first since the 1850 "measures of adjustment." It was not 
possible for Douglas, the previous year, to make a statement, 
such as he was now to make, the basis of party orthodoxy, if the 
bill had had to be signed by a Whig president. And it was essential 
to Douglas's 1854 plans and projects that he become the high 
priest of the party's faith. 

Douglas's intentions, in sidetracking Senator Dodge's old Ne- 
braska bill and bringing in an entirely new one, accompanied 
by an elaborate report, must now be gleaned from that report. 
This document, a masterpiece of political rhetoric, deserves the 
closest scrutiny by every student of the legislative process. Of it 
we may say what Macaulay said of the Toleration Act, that w it 
will not bear to be tried by sound general principles. Nay it will 
not bear to be tried by any principle, sound or unsound/' And 
yet not quite so. Unlike the English with their "national distaste 
for whatever is abstract in political science/* the sensitive and 
inflammatory public for whom Douglas wrought conceived of 
their demands in terms of general principles. Douglas's report also 
abounds in contradictions, but whereas the great English law 
achieved its purpose by an innocent disregard of its own incon- 
sistencies, Douglas's report is highly and articulately self-con- 
scious on this subject. Since his public demanded principles, and 
since principled differences are peculiarly difficult to compromise, 
Douglas attempted to make the ignoring of principled differences 
itself a principle. Yet, again, this is not entirely correct It fits one 
of Douglas's arguments, wherein he says, in substance: In 1850 
we struck a good bargain, a bargain in which each party got 
something and gave something, and which all greatly preferred 
to the alternative, which would have been no bargain, but dis- 


union. But this bargain, Douglas shows, was accepted by the 
different parties for different reasons and understood in different 
terms. If any attempt had been made to reach agreement on the 
reasons for the compromise, there could have been no compro- 
mise. The moral, however, should have been: Let us now follow 
the precedent of 1850 and ask what it is each party hopes to 
accomplish by a Nebraska bill and see if there is not an attainable 
common denominator of these demands. It is not the moral 
Douglas draws, however. He has another argument, which intro- 
duces a new level of contradiction. And while Douglas points 
clearly to the one kind of contradiction, he shrewdly averts 
attention from the other. Instead of the superficial inconsistency 
of an "agreement to disagree," Douglas moves on to associate 
a simple dictate of prudence with a new higher principle. This 
new higher principle, of course, is popular sovereignty. However, 
on the evidence Douglas himself offers in the report, no one in 
1850 subordinated any differences of principle to the supervening 
principle of popular sovereignty. The warring factions of 1850 
no more agreed on popular sovereignty, on committing "all ques- 
tions pertaining to slavery in the territories ... to the decision 
of the people residing therein," than the warring sects in 1689 
had agreed that "mere theological error ought not to be punished 
by the civil magistrate." According to Macaulay, This principle 
the Toleration Act not only does not recognize, but positively 
disclaims. . . Persecution continues to be the general rule. Tolera- 
tion is the exception." But in 1689 the exceptions were sufficient 
to accomplish most of what would have been accomplished had 
the principle of toleration been recognized. The right end was 
achieved, but for the wrong reasons. 

So in 1850, California could have been admitted and New 
Mexico and Utah organized on the popular-sovereignty principle, 
but they were not The conflicting claims of the Wilmot Proviso 
men on the one hand and the Calhoun-Davis men on the other 
tended to cancel each other out as the bargain was struck, but 
the negative act of abstaining from any decision whatever on the 
merits of these positions (as Douglas points out was done) was 
not a positive affirmation of any third position. Treating the nega- 
tive as if it were a positive affirmation, while yet declaring that 
there was no positive affirmation, is what transforms Douglas's 
report from the level of superficial to that of profound inner con- 
tradiction. It is as if someone had told the English people four 


years after the Toleration Act that they had repudiated the 
principle of persecution and adopted the principle of religious 
liberty. The principle of religious liberty was not recognized in 
English law for nearly another century and a half. In like manner, 
Wilmot Proviso men did not abandon the principle of congres- 
sional exclusion of slavery in the territories; but while still assert- 
ing the principle, as Webster did in his March 7 (1850) speech, 
they relaxed their demand as unnecessary in the circumstances. 
In like manner, Calhoun-Davis men, while continuing to believe 
in the right to protection of slave property in tibe territories, abated 
that demand in the face of the uncertainty that slaveowners would 
go into New Mexicoor, perhaps, believing that if they did they 
would be able to protect this property themselves (even as the 
neighboring Texans had done) so long as no positive ban existed 
in federal law. The only question concerning slavery distinctly 
left to the decision of the people of the territories by the 1850 
legislation had to do with the constitutions with which they might 
one day apply for admission to the Union. It had nothing to do 
with the status of slavery during the territorial period. The 1850 
laws, as we shall see Douglas aver in his report, were silent on 
this question. Perhaps this may have meant allowing the people 
residing therein to decide. But a decision by default is hardly a 
higher principle, and Douglas's sleight-of-hand consists precisely 
in his attempt to produce the appearance of such a principle, not 
only despite this evidence, but from this evidence. That he does 
in large measure succeed is evidence of a supreme piece of politi- 
cal legerdemain a virtuoso sleight-of-hand trick, in which a 
principle, like a rabbit, is pulled from a principle-proof hat! 

"The principal amendments which your committee deem it 
their duty to recommend to the favorable action of the Senate,** 
Douglas began in his famous special Senate report of January 4, 


are those in which the principles established by the compro- 
mise measures of 1850, so far as they are applicable to terri- 
torial organizations, are proposed to be affirmed and carried 
into practical operation within the limits of the new Territory. 
The wisdom of those measures is attested, not less by their 
salutary and beneficial effects, in allaying sectional agitation 
and restoring peace and hannony to an irritated and dis~ 


tracted people, than by tie cordial and almost universal 
approbation with which they have been received and sanc- 
tioned by the whole country. 

The report thus begins with a hypothesis which is something of 
a paradox: that compromise measures established principles. That 
this Is even more than a paradox will appear when Douglas says 
in the report that there was in 1850 no agreement beyond the 
specific terms of the Utah and New Mexico 1850 territorial laws. 
And tihere is this further implicit contradiction: Donglas alludes 
to the existence of parts of the Compromise of 1850 other than 
the territorial laws. What right does he have to assume that what 
is part of a larger whole can stand on its feet as a precedent 
apart from that whole? We have already shown that an argument 
can be made to the effect that other parts of the Compromise, 
as parts of a bargain, balanced and canceled each other and that 
this part might stand alone. But this required such a demonstration 
as we have suggested; it is hardly warranted as an assumption. 
One cannot assume without proof that one particular part of a 
compromise embodies the "principle" of the compromise more 
than any other parts of the compromise. Further: the idea of "cor- 
dial and almost universal approbation" is, to put it mildly, a some- 
what overoptimistic viewing of the scene in the free states that 
greeted, for example^ the Fugitive Slave Law. It is true that the 
counfay, weary with strife, had quieted down in the realization 
that disunion or war would probably result from any attempt to 
reopen the controversy. But the immolation of the Whig party 
upon the altar of the compromise was hardly evidence of its vast 
popularity. It is true that both the "major" parties had in 1852 en- 
dorsed, with uncertain enthusiasm, the settlement of 1850. But 
one of them was already well on the way to becoming a minor 
party, and the other was being threatened with a similar fate. 
What Douglas was in fact attempting in these sonorous opening 
paragraphs was not history but a new propaganda in favor of the 
1850 measures, a propaganda designed to endow them with a 
sanctity such as the Missouri Compromise had come to have and 
which Douglas well knew the Missouri Compromise had not had 
until long after 1821. 

In the judgment of your committee [the report continues], 
those measures were intended to have a far more compre- 
hensive and enduring effect than the mere adjustment of the 


difficulties arising out of the recent acquisition of Mexican 
territory. They were designed to establish certain great prin- 
ciples, which would not only furnish adequate remedies for 
existing evils, but, in all time to come, avoid the perils of a 
similar agitation, by withdrawing the question of slavery from 
the halls of Congress and the political arena, and committing 
it to the arbitrament of those who were immediately inter- 
ested in it, and alone responsible for its consequences. With 
the view of conforming their action to what they regard the 
settled policy of the government, sanctioned by the approv- 
ing voice of the American people, your committee have 
deemed it their duty to incorporate and perpetuate, in their 
territorial bill, the principles and spirit of those measures. 
If any other considerations were necessary, to render this 
course imperative upon the committee, they may be found 
in the fact, that the Nebraska country occupies the same 
relative position to the slavery question, as did New Mexico 
and Utah, when those territories were organized. 

Here we find the report's first version of the popular-sovereignty 
idea as the supervening principle of the 1850 compromise. But 
committing slavery to tie arbitrament of those immediately 
interested and alone responsible is loose enough for many mean- 
ings. It certainly does not require us to believe more than that the 
people of the territories would not be confronted with any federal 
mandate to prohibit slavery when they came to draft constitu- 
tions preparatory to seeking statehood. 

We turn now to another massive difficulty: Daniel Webster 
had by common consent gone to the very farthest verge that 
free-soil opinion could go in conciliating pro-slavery opinion in 
1850. Indeed, it is probable that no other northern leader had the 
prestige to go so far, and Webster himself had spent that prestige 
prodigally. But Webster had said in 1850, in one passage of the 
March 7 speech, that "there is not at this moment within the 
United States, or any territory of the United States, a single foot 
of land, the character of which, in regard to its being free terri- 
tory, or slave territory, is not fixed by some law, and some 
irrepealable law, beyond the power of the action of the govern- 
ment" If this was so, or if the belief that it was so had been part 
of the purchase price of support by the North for the 1850 
legislation, for what territory could that legislation serve as 


precedent? Indeed, was it not the conviction, in 1850, that the 
compromise measures were a final settlement of the question of 
slavery in the territories, that induced men on all sides to make 
concessions? For the belief that the relaxation of a principle will 
never serve as a precedent, that therefore such evil as flows from 
the case will be limited to the case, is the very thing that will 
induce men to relax their principles. 

But what did Webster mean by "inrepealable law"? After 
Douglas had been driven to the repeal of the Missouri slavery 
restriction, when he was locked in combat with the free-soil 
senators over his amended Kansas-Nebraska bill, Douglas asserted 
that Webster (now dead) did wi include the Missouri Com- 
promise in that category, and cited as evidence another passage 
from Webster's March 7 speech: 

Now, Mr. President, I have established ... the proposition 
with which I set out . . . and that is, that the whole territory 
within the former United States, or in the newly acquired 
Mexican provinces, has a fixed and settled character, now 
fixed and settled by law which cannot be repealed; in the 
case of Texas without a violation of public faith, and by no 
human power in regard to California or New Mexico; that, 
therefore, under one or other of these laws, every foot of 
land in the States or in the Territories has already received 
a fixed and decided character. 

"One or other of these laws," Douglas was to insist, distinctly 
referred only to laws affecting Texas and the Mexican provinces, 
and these and these alone were "irrepealable." But what Douglas 
did not mention was that Webster had also said, in the very 
paragraph preceding the foregoing, that "wherever there is a foot 
of land to be prevented from becoming skve territory, I am ready 
to assert the principle of the exclusion of slavery." 10 And when 
Webster on June 3, 1850, voted for the provisions of the 1850 bills 
permitting the people of the new territories to adopt state con- 
stitutions with or without slavery, he said: "And let it be remem- 
bered that I am now speaking of New Mexico and Utah, and 
other territories acquired from Mexico, and of nothing else . . . 
as to them [our italics] I say that I see no occasion to make 
a provision against slavery . . ," 11 Nothing can be more certain 
than that Webster never understood the Missouri restriction to 
have been disturbed by 1850; and Douglas was certainly guilty 


of disingenuousness in twisting the one sentence to Ms purpose. 
Our defense of Douglas on this point is the one already sug- 
gested; he no more intended repeal than Webster did, and was 
driven to such tortuous explanations by the same unforeseen 
contingency that drove him to repeal. 

To the objection, however, that the very idea of the Compro- 
mise of 1850 was founded upon the belief that it could not serve 
as a precedent, we offer a twofold reply. In the first place, one 
virtue of the 1850 compromise, as Douglas expounded it, was 
that it permitted the different parties to accept it for different, 
even contradictory, reasons. Thus Webster might reconcile im- 
portant elements of free-soil opinion on the assumption that there 
would be no further territorial acquisitions; that was his privilege 
as a northeastern Whig. But by the same token Douglas, as a 
northwestern Democrat, had a right to different expectations. 

Yet this explanation is not sufficient. However notoriously alive 
Manifest Destiny may have yet been in the Democratic party in 
1850, the idea that the compromisers were establishing a prece- 
dent for "all time to come" was certainly remote from public 
consciousness. Indeed, it is virtually certain that, if there had 
been any serious attempt to introduce such a consideration into 
the compromising, compromise would have been at an end. Yet 
tow "unhistoricaT is this use of history? Lincoln was one day to 
write; "AH honor to Jefferson to the man who, in the concrete 
pressure of a straggle for national independence by a single 
people, had the coolness, forecast, and capacity to introduce into 
a merely revolutionary document, an abstract truth, applicable 
to all men and all times, and so to embklm it there, that today, 
and in all coming days, it shall be a rebuke and a stumbling 
block to the very harbingers of re-appearing tyranny and op- 
pression." 12 Yet Lincoln knew that the anti-slavery implications 
that he, in 1858, perceived in the Declaration were far from fully 
grasped by the public for whom Jefferson wrote. It was notorious 
that the Declaration itself had been emended more than once 
out of tenderness for the sensibilities of those who profited North 
and South by the slave trade, whether as buyers or sellers. If the 
Declaration of Independence meant no more than what it was 
generally understood to mean in 1776, Lincoln's statement is 
profoundly unhistorical. Yet had not Jefferson himself said of the 
Declaration that it was only meant ". . . to be an expression of 
the American mind . , , [and that] All its authority rests on the 


hamonMng sentiments of the day"? 18 Jefferson, in writing the 
Declaration, may have expressed no more than what he -thought 
all believed- But it is also true that men in 1776 subscribed to 
propositions which had consequences of which they were not fully 
aware and which they may not have accepted if they had been 
aware of them. That Jefferson intended the Declaration, or 
the philosophy it expressed, to have far more drastic consequences 
than were possible in 1776 is hardly open to question. And if 
the intention of the legislator is the law, then did not the historical 
meaning of the Declaration comprehend also its historic mission, 
and was not that mission the attainment as well as the promise 
of equality? 

Applying the same construction to Douglas's interpretation of 
the Compromise of 1850, may we not say that he, as one of the 
chief architects of that legislation, had a right to find in it more 
than was unequivocally expressed, more even than was generally 
understood as a condition of its acceptance at the time it was 
accepted? In our judgment, such a ^constructive interpretation 7 * 
of the past would have been unjustifiable if Douglas's present 
intention was not justifiable. In so far as that intention was repeal 
of the Missouri Compromise, which we deny that it was, he should 
be condemned. But in so far as his aim was propaganda in behalf 
of 1850, which we affirm, witih a view to lend dignity to those 
measures so that support of them would not be a Mss of death 
to national political parties, his aim is eminently justifiable. And 
essential to that propaganda was the discovery that 1850 was not 
merely the rubbish heap for the principles of frightened men but 
the rallying ground for a better principle. 

Let us now hear how Nebraska country in 1854 occupied the 
"same relative position*' as Utah and New Mexico in 1850. 

It was a disputed point, whether slavery was prohibited by 
law in tihte country acquired from Mexico. On the one hand 
it was contended, as a legal proposition, that slavery having 
been prohibited by the enactments of Mexico, according to 
the laws of nations, we received the country with all its local 
laws and domestic institutions attached to the soil, so far as 
they did not conflict with the Constitution of the United 
States; and that a law, either protecting or prohibiting slav- 
ery, was not repugnant to that instrument, as was evidenced 


by the fact, that one-half of the States of the Union tolerated, 
while the other half prohibited, the institution of Slavery. 
On the other hand it was insisted that, by virtue of the 
Constitution of the United States, every citizen had a right 
to remove to any Tenitory of the Union, and carry his 
property with him under the protection of law, whether that 
property consisted in persons or things. The difficulties arising 
from this diversity of opinion were greatly aggravated by 
the fact^ that there were many persons on both sides of the 
legal controversy who were unwilling to abide the decision 
of the courts on the legal matters in dispute; thus, among 
those who claimed that the Mexican laws were still in force, 
and consequently that slavery was already prohibited in 
those territories by valid enactment, there were many who 
insisted upon Congress making the matter certain, by enact- 
ing another prohibition. In like manner, some of those who 
argued that the Mexican laws had ceased to have any binding 
force, and that the Constitution tolerated and protected slave 
property in those territories, were unwilling to trust the 
decision of the courts upon that point, and insisted that 
Congress should, by direct enactment remove aE legal obsta- 
cles to the introduction of slaves into those territories. [Jef- 
ferson Davis in 1850 only wished to prevent a territorial 
legislature from prohibiting the introduction of slavery. He 
had not yet moved to the demand for full congressional 

Such being the character of the controversy, in respect 
to the territory acquired from Mexico, a similar question has 
arisen in regard to the right to hold slaves in the proposed 
territory of Nebraska when the Indian laws shall be with- 
drawn * . Under this section [of the 1820 enabling act for 
Missouri], as in the case of Mexican kw in New Mexico 
and Utah, it is a disputed point whether slavery is prohibited 
in Nebraska country by valid enactment The decision of 
this question involves the constitutional power of Congress 
to pass laws prescribing and regulating the domestic institu- 
tions of the various territories of the Union. In the opinion 
of those eminent statesmen, who hold that Congress is in- 
vested with no rightful authority to legislate upon the subject 
of slavery in the teacritories, the eighth section of the act 
preparatory to the admission of Missouri is null and void; 


while the prevailing sentiment in large portions of the Union 
sustains the doctrine that the Constitution of the United 
States secures to every citizen an inalienable right to move 
into any of the territories with his property, of whatever kind 
and description, and to hold and enjoy the same under the 
sanction of law. 

Let us watch the political legerdemain whereby Douglas extracts 
a new principle from an old event. Notice the last sentence 
quoted, in which Douglas describes one doctrine (and only one) 
as being held by eminent statesmen. According to this doctrine, 
the Missouri Compromise was null and void because Congress 
had no rightful power whatever to legislate upon the question of 
slavery in the territories. The opinion of the "eminent statesmen" 
is presented as an objection to the Missouri law, but there is 
nothing analogous to it in the preceding paragraph, wherein ob- 
jections to the Mexican anti-slavery law were presented. Certainly 
it could not refer to Douglas's 1850 opinions, for we have heard 
Douglas's well-known 1850 advocacy of the legal effectiveness of 
the Mexican prohibition as the strongest reason why he had 
opposed the Wilmot Proviso. And no Mexican kw could have 
been legally effective which the Constitution had denied Congress 
the power to enact. Now, in the first of the two paragraphs just 
quoted, Douglas gave as the basis of the argument of those who 
had opposed the legal proposition in favor of Mexican law that 
"by virtue of the Constitution of the United States, every citizen 
had a right to remove to any Territory of the Union, and carry his 
property with him under the protection of law, whether that 
property consisted in persons or things." In the latter paragraph 
he repeats this doctrine, in the second half of the last sentence 
quoted, after the semicolon. But the manner in which it is re- 
peated, within the same sentence as the one quoting the opinion 
of "eminent statesmen/* obscures the fact that the doctrine that 
Congress has no power to legislate on slavery in the territories is 
completely different from the doctrine that every citizen has an 
inalienable right to move into any territory with any description 
of property. For the latter doctrine, by necessary inference, con- 
veys to Congress the right to pass laws protecting the slave 
property to which the citizen is said to have an inalienable right 
Both doctrines support the view tibat the Missouri Compromise 
was invalid, but one is the old Calhoun-Davis doctrine, whose 


culmination was the demand for a congressional slave code for 
the territories; and the other was Douglas's subsequent doctrine 
of complete non-interference, a doctrine maintained in the de- 
bates with Lincoln and given full form only in the H&fpefo 
Magazine article, "Popular Sovereignly in the Territories," pub- 
lished in 1859. 

But if this is "pure" popular sovereignty, and if this is expressly 
stated to imply the invalidity of the Missouri restriction, do we 
not here have an unmistakable sign that repeal was Douglas's aim 
from the outset in 1854? The answer is no. For Douglas had 
not yet identified himself with "pure" popular sovereignty. That 
Douglas was preparing the ground for such a declaration of 
invalidity, we have no doubt But preparing is not occupying, 
Everything hinges on timing. To declare the invalidity of the 
Missouri law after all the territory north of the Missouri line had 
been organized and settled would be very different from doing so 

But who were the "eminent statesmen"? There is something 
"funny" in this expression, in both senses of the colloquialism. 
While we would not positively assert that there were no such 
persons, it would be difficult to say who they were. Certainly 
neither Douglas nor any of the other compromisers held such 
views in 1850 a fact attested by the omission of any such ob- 
jection to the Mexican law in this very report Popular sovereignty 
had been common political coin at least since 1848, and yet no 
one had said that Congress had no power over slavery in the 
territories. As a political doctrine, it was widely believed that 
the people of the territories ought to be accorded the fullest 
measure of self-government; but the general legal doctrine still 
held that it was the right and duty of Congress to accord this 
measure, and not that the Constitution did it of its own force. 
The 1850 territorial law not only provided for a governor and 
judges appointed by the President of the United States and a 
veto power (which required a two-thirds vote of the territorial 
legislature to override) by this same governor (who was not 
responsible to the territories but to the President), but every 
territorial statute was subject to an absolute veto by Congress. 
Even in the final version of the Kansas-Nebraska Act which 
supposedly embodied more of this new "pure" popular sover- 
eignty, the non-responsible executive and his veto remained. 

Even if we confound the political desirability, with the legal 


requirement, of a hands-off policy by Congress concerning slavery 
in the territories, no one had yet (January 4, 1854) maintained 
even the desirability that congressional hands should be off to 
the extent now indicated. At the most, popular sovereignty had 
meant that Congress should not decide, even in the territorial 
period, whether slavery might be established in a territory. But 
that Congress had no power over the conditions under which 
the people who went into the territories might decide e.g., 
whether they went with or tvithout slaves had not been a recog- 
nized feature of popular sovereignty. Those who held that Con- 
gress had no such power the Calhoun-Davis school also held 
fiie whole idea of popular sovereignty in contempt. Douglas thus 
transforms the contemporaneous 1854 "dispute" (a dispute that 
was sleeping, if not moribund, until his report gave it vitality) 
concerning the validity of the Missouri law by introducing a doc- 
trine which has no equivalent in the supposed analogy. And the 
boldness of Douglas's originality is concealed when he endows 
this new doctrine with the prestige of "eminent" statesmen who, 
so far as we know, existed only in his imagination. 

Final judgment on this comparison of Nebraska and the 
Mexican acquisition can be arrived at only after evaluating 
Douglas's intention; but the manner in which Douglas makes 
the comparison reveals a further downgrading of the Missouri 
Compromise. That there were objections by the Calhoun-Davis 
school to both the Mexican and Missouri slavery restrictions is 
certainly correct, and it is also true that at bottom they were 
founded upon a single constitutional doctrine. This was given its 
final and precise formulation in 1857 in Taney's opinion in the 
Dred Scott case: that the right to property in a slave was 
affirmed in the Constitution, and that the Constitution (by the 
Fifth Amendment) forbade Congress (and, a fortiori, Mexican 
law) to deprive any person of property without due process of 
law. Yet there was a great practical and political difference be- 
tween Mexican law, transferred by international law to American 
soil, and the at least once-sacred Missouri Compromise. The Tex- 
ans had been heroes in the North as well as in the South for revolu- 
tionizing against Mexican law. But even those Southerners who 
believed the Missouri law unconstitutional would have recognized 
in Congress an authoritative arbiter of the meaning of the Con- 
stitution. 14 It was a striking departure for Douglas to put the 


scruple against Mexican law, which had not been the subject of 
any solemn affirmation by any branch of the American govern- 
ment, upon the same level as a scruple against the Missouri 
Compromise, even if the scruple in both cases had the same 
technical foundation. Moreover, it was well known that the con- 
stitutional objection to the Missouri Compromise had its head 
and inspiration in the teachings of John Caldwell Calhoun. It was 
also known that this worthy had discovered his objection only in 
later years, after he had discovered the "positive good" of slavery. 
When Calhoun sat in Monroe's Cabinet and was among those con- 
sulted on the constitutionality of the famous eighth section of the 
enabling act for Missouri he found no flaw in it. Indeed, he then 
"heartily endorsed" the Compromise of 1820, according to an 
authoritative recent study. 15 The Missouri Compromise had been 
passed by both houses of Congress and signed by a president. 
And this President, who was subsequently re-elected, had re- 
ceived the approval by his Cabinet of the eighth section, a Cabinet 
including both Calhoun and John Quincy Adams. Disrespect to 
Mexican law could hardly outrage the North. Disrespect to the 
Missouri Compromise assuredly would. Douglas, of course, had 
said in 1850 that American settlers cared nothing for congressional 
legislation of their domestic affairs unless it suited them. However, 
in the old Northwest and in Iowa and Minnesota, it was indisputa- 
ble that the settlers had decided in accordance with the federal 
declaration. Whether federal law there was powerless or not, it 
derived dignity from the fact that it had never been seriously 

But the downgrading of the Missouri Compromise goes still 
farther. In discussing the Mexican prohibition of slavery Douglas 
cites the opinion which he himself once expressed with utmost 
emphasis holding that it was valid on American soil until re- 
pealed by American authority. But when he comes to the 
"disputed point" concerning the Missouri Compromise restriction 
of slavery, he gives two opinions holding this law invalid the new 
"pure" popular-sovereignty opinion, and the Calhoun-Davis opin- 
ion, repeated from the preceding paragraph but no opinion 
supporting the Missouri law's validity. It is of particular impor- 
tance in this context to realize that among extreme anti-slavery 
men it was firmly believed that the provision in the Fifth 
Amendment forbidding any person to be deprived of life, liberty, 
or property, without due process of law, forbade that any man 


be enslaved in consequence of federal law. By omitting this 
challenging antithesis to "the doctrine that the Constitution of the 
United States secures to every citizen an inalienable right to move 
into any of the territories with his property, of whatever kind and 
description," he clothes that doctrine with excessive dignity. 
Certainly he treats this view with a consideration that is a surprise 
to anyone who has witnessed the savage attacks he made upon 
ft in 1850. And the omitted doctrine was the one held most 
vehemently by Chase and Sumner, the men who were presently 
to issue a flaming challenge to the Nebraska bill. Whether or not 
this was a tactical error, Douglas was to pay heavily for it. Did 
Douglas think that, by not presenting any other doctrine antitheti- 
cal to the extreme pro-slavery position, this new "pure" popular 
sovereignty might be construed to be such an antithesis? Did he, 
in 1854, visualize "pure" popular sovereignty as the fighting free- 
soil doctrine it became for a short time in the fight against 

We now come to the first specific statement of what Douglas's 
committee proposed that Congress actually do. Until now we 
were told only that it meant to follow the precedent of 1850 and 
then were presented with a complicated statement concerning the 
nature of the precedent, in the form of an analogy between the 
dispute in 1850 over Utah and New Mexico and the "dispute" 
in 1854 over Nebraska, and its relation to current questions. The 
analogy suggested a heavy weighting of the scales against the 
Missouri Compromise. But the weight is more than redressed by 
a downright denial of the force of the deleterious inferences. 
Douglas wrote: 

Your committee do not feel themselves called upon to enter 
into the discussion of these controverted questions. They 
involve the same grave issues which produced the agitation, 
the sectional strife, and the fearful struggle of 1850. As 
Congress deemed it wise and prudent to refrain from de- 
ciding the matters in controversy then, either by affirming or 
repealing the Mexican laws, or by any act declaratory of the 
true intent of the Constitution and the extent of the protec- 
tion afforded by it to slave property in the territories, so your 
committee are not prepared now to recommend a departure 
from the course proposed on that memorable occasion, either 


by affirming or repealing the eighth section of the Missouri 
act, or by any act declaratory of the Constitution in respect 
to the legal points in dispute. [Italics not in the original] 

The adverb "now" in the last sentence was soon to take on ominous 
meaning. But in the context it stands in opposition to "then," 
and it would have taken an unusually wary mind to suspect that 
"no V meant only "for the time being." The crucial proposition 
contained in the last sentence is that the committee did not rec- 
ommend the repeal of the eighth section of the Missouri act. That 
it did not affirm it is of minor significance, since it was not the 
custom of Congress to reaffirm the constitutionality of its own ac- 
tions, and there was no demand for such an affirmation. The 
refusal to reaffirm is, in itself, merely perfunctory. But the refusal 
to repeal stands as massive evidence that Douglas, on January 4, 
1854, had no intention that the barrier to slavery in the Nebraska 
country would be thrown down as a condition of its territorial 
The report then continues: 

Your committee deem it fortunate for the peace of the 
country, and the security of the Union, that the controversy 
then resulted in the adoption of the Compromise measures, 
which the two great political parties, with singular unanimity, 
have affirmed as a cardinal article of their faith, and pro- 
claimed to the world, as a final settlement of the controversy 
and an end of the agitation. A due respect, therefore, for the 
avowed opinions of Senators, as well as a proper sense of 
patriotic duty, enjoins upon your committee the propriety 
and necessity of a strict adherence to the principles, and even 
a literal adoption of the enactments of that adjustment in all 
their territorial bills, so far as the same are not locally 

Having climbed to the clarity of an unequivocal refusal to repeal, 
Douglas again descends to the murky ambiguities of his 1850 
precedent. If he had limited himself to the literal adoption . . . 
so far as the same are not locally inapplicable" of the language 
of the 1850 territorial acts, then the only important question 
could have been whether the right granted in the 1850 laws to 
apply for admission with slavery was or was not locally inappli- 
cable" in the face of the eighth section of the Missouri act But 


this would have been hardly worth quarreling about. In the joint 
debates, Lincoln conceded this right to the people of any territory, 
provided slavery had been excluded during the territorial period. 
For, as we have often noted, all it meant was conceding to them 
the right to do, the day before statehood, what they could in any 
event do the day after. But now after maintaining that in 1850 
Congress had refused to decide all such questions of principle as 
whether the Constitution of the United States made freedom 
national and slavery an exception, or slavery national and freedom 
an exception, or that the Constitution reserved the question of 
freedom versus slavery to localities because Congress had no 
power over it whatever now Douglas insists upon following the 
example of 1850, not only in the letter of the law, but in its 
"principles" as well. And the denouement of that fateful January 
of 1854 which we shall describe in the next chapter began, not 
with the report we are now reading, but with the subsequent 
inclusion into the Nebraska bill of an alleged "principle" of 1850, 
as if it had been "a literal adoption" from the 1850 territorial laws. 
Let us now hear Douglas report the 'letter" of the earlier laws: 

Those enactments embrace, among other things less material 
to the matters under consideration, the following provisions: 

"When admitted as a State, the said Territory or any portion 
of the same, shall be received into the Union, with or without 
slavery, as their constitution may prescribe at the time of 
their admission." 

"That the legislative power and authority of said Territory 
shall be vested in the governor and a legislative assembly." 

"That the legislative power of said Territory shall extend to 
all rightful subjects of legislation, consistent with the Con- 
stitution of the United States and the provisions of this 
act . . . [We omit repeating a clause dealing with disposi- 
tion of the soil and discriminatory taxes.] 

"Writs of error and appeal from the final decisions of said 
[territorial] supreme court shall be allowed, and may be 
taken to the Supreme Court of the United States in the same 
manner and under the same regulations as from the circuit 
courts of the United States . . . except only that, in all cases 
involving title to slaves, the said writs of error or appeals 


shall be allowed and decided by the said supreme court with- 
out regard to the value of the matter, property, or title in 
controversy; and except, also, that a writ of error or appeal 
shall also be allowed to the Supreme Court of the United 
States . . . upon any writ of habeas corpus involving the 
question of personal freedom . . ." 

Then, after a short paragraph citing the extension of the 1850 
Fugitive Slave Law to the new territories in 1850, Douglas goes 
on to enunciate the "principles" (otherwise called "propositions") 
of the 1850 territorial laws. 

From these provisions it is apparent that the compromise 
measures of 1850 affirm and rest upon the following proposi- 

First: That all questions pertaining to slavery in the terri- 
tories, and in the new States to be formed therefrom, are 
to be left to the decision of the people residing therein, by 
their appropriate representatives, to be chosen by them for 
that purpose. 

Second: That "all cases involving title to slaves," and 
"questions of personal freedom" are referred to the adjudica- 
tion of the local tribunals, with the right of appeal to the 
Supreme Court of the United States. 

Third: That the provisions of the Constitution of the 
United States, in respect to fugitives from service, are to be 
carried into faithful execution in all "organized territories" the 
same as in the States. 

This famous document then ends as follows: 

The substitute for the bill which your committee have pre- 
pared, and which is commended to the favorable action of 
the Senate, proposes to carry these propositions and princi- 
ples into practical operation, in the precise language of the 
compromise measures of 1850. 

Let us observe the same kind of transformation flowing from the 
juxtaposition of the provisions of the 1850 territorial acts with 
propositions (or "principles") upon which they are said to rest, 
as we previously noted in the juxtaposition (and presumed anal- 
ogy) of the dispute concerning the validity of the Mexican anti- 
slavery law and the dispute concerning the validity of the 


Missouri restriction. Now the first provision cited by Douglas ac- 
tually says nothing whatever concerning the power of the people 
of the territories over slavery in the territories; it says only that 
when admitted as a state said territory (or any portion of the 
same) shall be received into the Union with or without slavery. 
This provision neither precludes nor assumes the existence of slav- 
ery as a subject of territorial legislation, for the simple reason that 
it does not hold the question of slavery during the territorial 
period in contemplation at all. The first proposition then makes a 
giant and wholly unwarranted leap (from the point of view of 
logical inference) when it says that att questions in the territories 
are to be decided by representatives of the people of the territo- 
ries. This proposition, incidentally, even if the compromise meas- 
ures of 1850 had in some unseen way "rested upon" it, certainly is 
nowhere "affirmed" in them. However, as an alleged inference 
from the first provision cited, we must say that the first proposition 
states the exact reverse of the truth: i.e., by itself the first 
provision refers no question pertaining to slavery in a territory to 
the decision of the people therein. 

But could the first proposition be inferred from the third 
provision (of the 1850 territorial laws) cited in Douglas's report 
or from some combination of the first and third provisions? The 
answer is that it could not be, by any process of construction we 
know. On Douglas's own showing, in this very report, Congress 
did not decide or declare what degree or kind of power over 
questions pertaining to slavery "in the territories" was "consistent 
with the Constitution of the United States." And Congress had 
not, in 1850, left it to the territorial governments or to the people 
of the territories acting in a constituent capacity to judge the ex- 
tent of their own powers under the Constitution. This is shown 
by the fact that "all cases involving title to slaves" and "questions 
of personal freedom" were left to decisions of the courts and 
ultimately to the Supreme Court of the United States. And these 
courts, whether territorial or federal, were neither chosen by nor 
responsible in any way to the people of the territories. It is clear 
that the aforesaid "cases" and "questions" would surely have in- 
volved some or all of the points of controversy which Douglas 
praised Congress for not deciding in 1850. If, for example, the 
Dred Scott decision had issued before January 1854, it would 
have been plain, in accordance with that decision, that all ques- 
tions pertaining to slavery had not been left to the people of Utah 


and New Mexico or to their representatives and could not be left 
to them or to the people of Nebraska because according to the 
Dred Scott decision neither Congress nor a territorial legislature 
had any power consistent with the Constitution to forbid the 
introduction of slaves into any United States territory. In citing 
the Calhoun-Davis opinion that every citizen of the United States 
had an inalienable right to go into any federal territory with his 
slave property, Douglas had by clear implication raised the 
hypothetical possibility of such a Supreme Court decision as that 
in the case of Dred Scott. Hence he must have known on January 
4, 1854, that the first of his "propositions," according to which 
"all questions pertaining to slavery in the territories . . . [were] 
to be left to the people residing therein," might not have involved 
any legislative power to forbid the bringing of slaves into these 
selfsame territories. In short, as long as there was no understand- 
ing of what powers over slavery in the territories were "consistent 
with the Constitution of the United States," it was impossible to 
deduce from the 1850 grant to the people of Utah and New 
Mexico of legislative power in "all rightful subjects of legislation" 
any power to decide "all questions pertaining to slavery in the 

What Douglas has done, and in our opinion done quite 
deliberately, is to create, by his first proposition, a vastly greater 
presumption in favor of a much "purer" popular sovereignty than 
had ever been made before. Because Congress left vital constitu- 
tional points undecided, Douglas in his first proposition presumes 
that it left them, not to the Supreme Court, but to the people of 
the territories to decide. Because Congress left it to the people 
to decide the status of slavery after the territorial period ended, 
Douglas presumes that it had also left it to them to decide it 
before it ended. Yet there is a tactical and rhetorical, if not logical, 
consistency in all this: Douglas steadily pushes forward the whole 
popular-sovereignty idea as a kind of residual legatee of all 
the mutually incompatible contending doctrines. Popular sover- 
eignty emerges as a kind of dark horse as the popular favorites 
kill each other off. 

But further: Douglas had found, and found truly, that the 
genius of the 1850 compromise lay in a practical agreement which 
admitted of divergent and even contradictory interpretations; but 
the January 4, 1854, Nebraska bill, as authoritatively expounded 
by its author, does not rest simply on the first or "pure" popular- 


sovereignty "proposition"; it rests also on the second, which, if it 
does not flatly contradict the first, renders it altogether obscure. 
By this peculiar rhetoricwhich permits the same kind of diver- 
gent interpretations as persisted after 1850 Douglas is true to 
the "principle*' of 1850. 

Two things, and only two things, emerge clearly as immediate 
political conclusions of the report: It is the hope and intention 
of its author that all questions pertaining to slavery will be left 
or will be believed to be left to the decision of the people residing 
in the territories; and second, that the Missouri Compromise is 
not repealed. 

Chapter VIII 

The Repeal of the Missouri 
Compromise IV 


Now intervened a strange episode. Douglas's special report, 
accompanied by the bill, was issued on January 4 and printed 
in the Washington Sentinel on the seventh. This bill, despite the 
elaborate prologue of the report, actually contained no statement 
regarding slavery, except the language of the 1850 territorial acts 
which we have seen as the first of the provisions cited in the 
report. But on January 10, after the bill had been twice read in 
the Senate and ordered to be printed, it was reprinted by the 
Sentinel with an additional twenty-first section which, Douglas 
explained, had been omitted in the first published version because 
of a "clerical error." This famed "clerical error" section read as 

Section 21. And be it further enacted, That, in order to 
avoid all misconstruction, it is hereby declared to be the true 
intent and meaning of this act, so far as the question of slavery 
is concerned, to carry into practical operation the following 
propositions and principles established by the compromise 
measures of 1850, to wit: 

First. That all questions pertaining to slavery in the 
Territories, and in the new States to be formed therefrom, 
are to be left to the decision of the people residing therein, 
through their appropriate representatives. 

Second. That "all cases involving title to slaves" and 
"questions of personal freedom/' are referred to the adjudica- 


tion of the local tribunals, with the right of appeal to the 
Supreme Court of the United States. 

Third. That the provisions of the Constitution and laws of 
the United States, in respect to fugitives from service, are 
to be carried into faithful execution in all "the organized 
Territories" the same as in the States. 

It will be seen immediately that these three "propositions and 
principles" correspond to the ones with which the report had con- 
cluded. But whereas the second and third propositions of the 
report and of the twenty-first section are virtually identical, there 
is a slight change in the initial proposition as it occurs in the bill. 
The report spoke of the "decision of the people ... by their ap- 
propriate representatives, to be chosen by them for that purpose" 
The final portion of this sentence is now dropped. Why? The idea 
of representatives chosen for a special purpose suggests a consti- 
tutional convention, an exertion of constituent or original power, 
and not power delegated by Congress. This clause is the nexus 
in the report between the first provision and the first proposition. 
Both suggest (without specifying) the exercise of an extraordi- 
nary power, and not the legislative power vested in a territorial 
governor and legislative assembly. However, the first proposition 
of the twenty-first section does retain a vestige of its predecessor 
in the word "appropriate." All this makes it difficult to believe 
that Douglas did not have the twenty-first section as part of his 
grand design on January 4, and still more difficult to believe that 
a clerk was responsible for its omission on that date. Certainly 
the metamorphosis of the first provision into the first proposition 
in the report, and the latter into the first proposition of the twenty- 
first section, shows a steady progress of the idea of popular sover- 
eignty, as applied to questions pertaining to slavery, from an 
extraordinary power exerted on the threshold of statehood, to an 
extraordinary power exerted during the territorial period, to an 
almost ordinary exertion of territorial legislative power. Yet the 
"almost" is an important reservation. For the word "appropriate" 
is an anomaly. And the second proposition raises as massive a 
question mark as to the meaning of the first proposition, when it 
occurs in the twenty-first section of the bill, as it raised in the 

A succession of historical authorities, following the main theme 
of The Appeal of the Independent Democrats, has accepted the 


view that the twenty-first section of Douglas's Nebraska bill, as 
reprinted on January 10, 1854, represented a complete and 
radical departure. In the words of Allan Nevins, "it enacted the 
popular sovereignty principle. The plain implication was that the 
Missouri Compromise was dead." 1 But in the face of the question 
mark with which we have just seen Douglas himself punctuate 
"the popular sovereignty principle," is it not impossible thus to 
assert what effect its enactment, if it was enacted, would have 
had on existing law? So far as anyone could tell, on the basis of 
Douglas's report or bill, including the twenty-first section, popular 
sovereignty was protean and might assume almost any shape or 
form. Indeed, there was no plain implication in the entire bill and 
report. It was a mass of contrary and contradictory statements, 
inferences, and implications. In the face of the many eminent 
scholars who speak with the voice of Professor Nevins, we 
summon as a single witness Abraham Lincoln. The following 
passages are from the Peoria speech (October 16, 1854): 

On January 4, 1854, Judge Douglas introduces a new bill to 
give Nebraska territorial government. He accompanies this 
bill with a report, in which last, he expressly recommends 
that the Missouri Compromise shall neither be affirmed nor 

Before long the bill is so modified as to make two territories 
instead of one; calling the southern one Kansas. 

Also, about a month after the introduction of the bill, on 
the Judge's own motion, it is so amended as to declare the 
Missouri Compromise inoperative and void . . . 2 

It will be noted that Lincoln's expression "about a month" implies 
that he drew no distinction between the January 4 and January 10 
versions of the first Douglas bill. The decisive fact concerning the 
first bill, with or without the twenty-first section, was that it 
expressly did not affirm or repeal the eighth section of the Missouri 
law. If there was any doubt that Lincoln had brushed aside the 
twenty-first section of the first bill, it should be removed by this: 

I am aware Judge Douglas now argues that the subsequent 
express repeal [italics ours, not Lincoln's] is no substantial 
alteration of the bill. This argument seems wonderful to me. 
It is as if one should argue that white and black are not 
different 8 


The difference between white and black, to Lincoln, was the 
difference between the bill before and after express repeal. As 
far as Lincoln was concerned, to pretend, as Douglas did, that 
the bill, even with the twenty-first section, was not essentially and 
fundamentally different from the bill with express repeal was as 
"wonderful ... as if one should argue that white and black are 
not different" But this judgment of Lincoln, sufficient, as we think, 
to refute the idea of any "plain implication" that the Missouri 
Compromise was to be killed by the twenty-first section, has other 
far-reaching implications. For Lincoln's statement, crucial as it is 
to his case against Douglas, raises the question of the validity of 
the whole outcry raised against Douglas's report and bill before 
the express repeal. And with it is involved the question of whether 
Douglas really bore the responsibility of the repeal when it finally 
came. We must now observe the sequence of events in which that 
express repeal was involved. 

Despite the fact that the bill Douglas reported on January 4 
contained nothing more revolutionary than the provision for 
admitting future states from Nebraska with or without slavery, 
it was immediately attacked by Greeley in the New York 
Tribune, and the hue and cry in the North began. Nothing better 
illustrates the volatility of the political left wing of the anti-slavery 
movement than the hare-and-tortoise relationship of Greeley and 
Lincoln. Greeley exploded at the first appearance of a suggestion 
of a challenge to the Missouri Compromise, despite the disclaimer 
in the report Lincoln would not be moved to action by an insult 
not at the same time certain to be an injury. The gauntlet had 
to be thrown down in terms altogether unmistakable before he 
would assume the vast responsibility of joining such an issue. But 
once the issue was joined, Lincoln never rested in carrying on 
the fight. It was Greeley who flinched in 1858 and sought accom- 
modation with Douglas, even as he was later to flinch when 
the election of Lincoln was seen to involve war or disunion. But 
the brilliant and unstable editor, as the war progressed, was to 
harry Lincoln again, demanding a radical abolition policy which 
would have been a fundamental departure from the platform 
upon which Lincoln had been elected and which he had re- 
affirmed in his first inaugural address. Now in 1854 Greeley set 
the deep-toned chords vibrating in the North, and there was an 
answering cacophony from the opposite direction. "Clay's Whig 


successor in the Senate, Archibald Dixon, a ... lawyer-planter 
of precise mind," writes Professor Nevins, "pointed out the flaw" 
in the twenty-first section. "Unless the Missouri Compromise 
restriction were explicitly repealed, it would remain in force until 
the people had acted to end it. No slaveholder could emigrate 
to the Territory with slaves until after the people living therein 
had met, and through their representatives passed affirmatively 
on the question whether slavery could exist or not. This being 
so, argued Dixon, the decision would certainly go against slavery; 
for the laws up to that point would exclude all slaveholders while 
admitting free-soilers, abolitionists, Britons, Germans, and others 
opposed to the peculiar institution/' 4 According to Mrs. Dixon, 
in her True History of the Missouri Compromise and Its Repeal, 
her husband 

saw that Judge Douglas's bill, though seemingly framed on 
the plan of non-intervention, would not in reality carry out 
that principle at all; that as far as practical participation of 
the Southern people in those territories was concerned, the 
Wilmot Proviso . . . could not more effectually exclude them 
than they were already excluded by the Act of 1820 . . . 
and, until it should be directly repealed, it would effectually 
and practically preclude the Southern people from settling 
in Kansas and Nebraska ... If they were effectually, even 
though indirectly, excluded from entering these Territories, 
what good would it do them that there was in the twenty- 
first section a provision that "all questions pertaining to 
slavery in the Territories and New States to be formed 
therefrom are to be left to the decision of the people residing 
therein, through their appropriate representatives?" Cui 
bono? When they were to be no part of the people. 

We can think of no more accurate statement of the force oi 
Douglas's first Nebraska bill, even with the twenty-first section 
nor more eloquent testimony in support of our thesis that Douglas 
never intended that the Missouri slavery restriction would, "prac- 
tically and effectually," be repealed. Nor, in our view, was i1 
repealed by unequivocal indirection. This Douglas might have 
done by presenting the twenty-first section as an amendment tc 
the January 4 bill. Then it might have "superseded" any contrary 
implications in the original version. But by presenting the twenty- 
first section as a part of the original version, he presented it as 


part of a bill of which the special report stood as an authoritative 
explanation. And this report, to repeat, expressly denied an 
intention to repeal. Lincoln, as we have seen, wisely disregarded 
the whole business of "clerical error," as The Appeal of the 
Independent Democrats unwisely did not do. As long as Douglas's 
denial of an intention to repeal was uncontradicted by Douglas 
himself, it rendered nugatory any repeal implication of the 
twenty-first section. At this juncture the anti-slavery leaders 
should have been content to take their stand on this denial and 
keep their powder dry. 

Alas, extremists on both sides were unwilling to await the 
unraveling of the mysteries Douglas had propounded. Douglas 
hoped that while each extreme would find something doctrinal 
with which to be appeased, if not satisfied, the loaves and fishes 
of new territorial governments might "supersede" such doctrinal 
appetites as were disappointed. The probability that Nebraska 
would quicldy yield several new free states should have satisfied 
the free-soilers. Meanwhile, the doctrine of the special report, 
steadily and progressively interpreted in favor of an ever "purer" 
popular sovereignty, would render it morally certain that in any 
future territorial acquisitions there would be no federal prohibi- 
tion of slavery. And it was toward such acquisitions that Douglas 
would have turned the nation's energies. 

On January 16, Dixon informed the Senate of his intention to 
offer an amendment to the Nebraska bill that would in express 
terms have removed the slavery restriction of the eighth section 
of the Missouri act and have affirmed 

that the citizens of the several States or Territories shall be 
at liberty to take and hold their slaves within any of the 
Territories of the United States, or of the States to be formed 
therefrom, as if the said act . . . had never been passed. 

This amendment, according to all accounts, amazed and agitated 
Douglas. And well it might. Far from being a mere repeal, it was 
virtually a statement of the extreme Calhoun-Davis position. For 
the expression "take and hold 9 their slaves implied that territorial 
enactments might not forbid slaveholding. And the reference to 
future states as well as territories made the amendment a kind 
of reverse Wilmot Proviso. Of course there was an equivocation 
in "as if the said act ... had never been passed"; yet "shall be 


at liberty" was strong medicine. No doubt Dixon expressed a more 
extreme position here than he meant to insist upon. Later he ex- 
pressed himself satisfied with Douglas's much-watered-down re- 
peal provision. Yet it is instructive to see how radical the demands 
of border-state senators had become; and Dixon was sitting in the 
seat of Henry Clayl 

Dixon's proposed amendment instantly rallied the pro-slavery 
forces. If a Whig would do so much for the South, could Demo- 
crats do less? The next few days were thick with secret confer- 
ences, from which fateful decisions were to emerge. That a crisis 
no less than that of 1850 impended was foreshadowed when on 
the next day, January 17, Senator Sumner arose and gave notice 
of his intention to offer an amendment to the Nebraska bill ex- 
pressly reaffirming the slavery prohibition of the Missouri act of 
March 6, 1820. The fat was in the fire. 

Sumner's initial move was more restrained than Dixon's. 
Whether for bargaining purposes or not, Dixon had announced 
an intention of positively establishing the legality of slavery in any 
territory of the United States. Sumner might have responded by 
proposing that slavery was unlawful in any territory of the 
United States, but he merely stood firm on the Missouri Compro- 
mise. Now did the goddess of moderation prove fickle. While 
Dixon and Douglas worked together to find an acceptable com- 
promise, the anti-slavery leaders in the Senate, Chase and 
Sumner, took steps which made all compromise or even polite 
intercourse between themselves and Douglas a virtual impossibil- 
ity. They issued The Appeal of the Independent Democrats 
in Congress to the People of the United States, one of the most 
successful pieces of political propaganda the world has seen. 
Among its resounding paragraphs were such expressions as the 

We arraign this bill as a gross violation of a sacred pledge; 
as a criminal betrayal of precious rights; as part and parcel 
of an atrocious plot to exclude from a vast unoccupied region 
immigrants from the Old World, and free laborers from our 
own States, and convert it into a dreary region of despotism, 
inhabited by masters and slaves. 

These pretences ... that the territory, covered by the 


positive prohibition of 1820, sustains a similar relation to 
slavery with that acquired from Mexico . . . are mere inven- 
tions, designed to cover up from public reprehension medi- 
tated bad faith. 

It concluded by imploring "Christians and Christian ministers to 
interpose. Their divine religion requires them to behold in every 
man a brother, and to labor for the advancement and regenera- 
tion of the human race." It exhorted all men to "protest, earnestly 
and emphatically . . . against this enormous crime." 

The Appeal was printed, as we have noted above, in the 
Congressional Globe of January 30; and the dateline then given 
it by its authors was January 19. Yet the note appended to the 
body of the Appeal, which we have already reproduced, inveighs 
against the January 10 "clerical error"* and all subsequent changes 
down to the amended version of January 23, which incorporated 
Douglas's own repeal. But it is inconceivable that the original draft 
of the body of the Appeal was not composed before January 10. 
For it is inconceivable that the twenty-first section would not have 
been flayed in the body of the Appeal if its existence was known 
when the first draft of the Appeal was prepared. Precisely when 
the Appeal was written we do not know. But it reached the nation 
through the press on January 24. On January 23 the bill, as finally 
amended in Douglas's committee, was reported to the Senate, 
but consideration was postponed until the thirtieth. According to 
Douglas, this was an act of courtesy to Chase, who requested the 
additional week's time to study the bill as now further amended. 
Clearly, however, the week's delay was to enable the Appeal to 
sow the wind. This it certainly did and, when Douglas rose to 
open the debate on the thirtieth, the whirlwind raged about him. 

Douglas claimed to know nothing about the Appeal until after 
it had been published. Exactly when he found out about it, when 
therefore he knew that Chase and Sumner were not interested 
in any form or shape of compromise with him, is less important 
than the brute fact that they applied the torch to anti-slavery 
passions at the precise moment when bargaining among the 
senators was going on as to the form that a Nebraska bill might 
take. Chase, who was the principal author of the Appeal, had 
oome to the Senate in 1849, after the 1848 elections had left the 
Ohio legislature deadlocked between Whigs and Democrats and 
a handful of free-soilers were able to prevent the election of either 


a Whig or regular Democrat. Chase, who was above all a free- 
soiler, finally went to the Senate as an "Independent Democrat." 
Such a man, of course, was nothing in the national councils of 
either major party. Until the principle of the Wilmot Proviso 
agitation was revived and made the basis of national party 
organization, he would remain a cipher. Much the same was true 
of Sumner. But both men had seen, from their experience of the 
Proviso, that such a party might yet take hold. Douglas's report 
and bill of January 4 gave them their opportunity, and they took 

If Chase and Sumner had come to Douglas privately, if the 
Appeal had been used as a bargaining counter with which he 
might have offset the pro-slavery demands upon him, how dif- 
ferent might the results have been? We can never know; but we 
are convinced that Douglas would have understood as well as 
Chase and Sumner the value of the weapon they held in their 
hand. His remark to Dixon that he knew the repeal would raise 
a "hell of a storm" suggests that he never underestimated free-soil 
passions. But within the Senate at the moment, in January 1854, 
the free-soil strength was negligible; and its potential influence, 
instead of being mobilized to strengthen Douglas against pro- 
slavery demands, was used entirely to destroy him. If Douglas 
was wrong in saying later that the express repeal had not changed 
the bill in any important respect, what are we to say of Chase 
and Sumner, who went to the country on the basis of that earlier 
nay, earliest bill? Does not Lincoln's condemnation turn back 
upon his future associates as much as upon Douglas? 

Certainly the Appeal burned all bridges in one direction. 
Douglas was thus thrown entirely upon his southern associates if 
he wanted a Nebraska bill. Should he have abandoned the effort 
altogether then? Douglas was now the prisoner of his own report. 
With such a weighty invocation he could hardly have turned back. 
The repealers could give him the votes, the votes a bill, and the 
bill two new territories. Douglas had fought the same fight against 
the Wilmot Proviso men in '48, and by '49 California had come 
knocking at the door for admission as a free state. Douglas had 
flung this in the face of the doctrinaire exclusionists throughout 
the debate in '50. He was certain he could do it again. 

Did he not in fact do it again? By the spring of 1858 Kansas 
seemed as surely on the way to becoming a free state as Iowa 


or Minnesota had been. Douglas himself had led the fight to 
assure that Kansas be free under the banner of popular sover- 
eignty. Were not the house divided speech and the campaign that 
followed it as wanton a destruction of the spirit of compromise 
and of the chances of sectional peace as Chase's and Simmer's 
Appeal had been four years earlier? 

Part III 




Analytical Outline of Lincoln's Address before the Yotmg Men 3 
Lyceum of Springfield, Illinois 9 January 27, 1838* 

A. Introduction 

I. Our Subject (i) 

II. Our Problem: The Achievement of the Fathers; Our Duty 
to Preserve and Transmit (2) 

B. Dangers to Be Forestalled 

I. Introduction: That They Are Internal, Not External (3, 4) 

II. The Dangers and Their Remedies (5-22) 

a. Present Danger: Mob Rule; and Its Remedy 

1. Mob Rule (5-11) 

a'. Its Direct Evils (5-8) 
b'. Its Indirect Evils (9-11) 

i'. From Bad Examples 

2'. From Alienation of Feelings of Best Citizens 

2. Remedy (12-15) 

a'. Political Religion (12, 13) 

b'. Redress of Grievance by Better Laws (14, 15) 

b. Future Dangers to Be Anticipated 

1. Introduction: Why Suppose Future Dangers? (16) 

2. How Future Must Differ from the Past 

a'. With Respect to Leaders of Genius and Ambi- 
tion (17-19) 
b'. With Respect to the Passions of the People 

C. Exhortation to Rebuild the Temple of Liberty 

I. The Materials Must Be Hewn from Reason; Passion Now 
Our Enemy (23) 

II. That the New Temple May Last as Long as "the Only 
Greater Institution." (24) 

*Note: Numbers in parenthesis correspond to the paragraphs of the 
text as printed in the Sangamo Journal, February 3, 1838, and reprinted 
in Collected Works, I, pp. 108-15. Tte paragraphs are not numbered 
in the printed text 

Chapter IX 

The Teaching Concerning Political 

WE have said that Lincoln's 1838 speech "On the Perpetuation 
of Our Political Institutions" showed conscious dedication to 
preparation for the crisis with which he one day grappled on so 
vast a scale. This may disturb the image of the folklore Lincoln, 
the hero who resembles Everyman, fashioned from the clay of 
the common people, sharing their joys and sorrows, yet able to 
turn from the concerns of everyday life to discharge, with deeper 
wisdom, duties heretofore regarded as the province of kings and 
potentates. This is the Lincoln who is supposed to have written 
the Gettysburg Address on the back of an envelope as he rode 
from Washington. Yet a careful reading of the earlier deliverance 
will show that the ideas crystallized in 1863, in prose not un- 
worthy of the greatest master of our language, had been pondered 
and matured full twenty-five years before. 

Of the myriad writers on Lincoln, Edmund Wilson alone, so 
far as we are aware, has grasped something of the hidden reser- 
voirs of that "startlingly prophetic" utterance delivered to the 
Young Men's Lyceum of Springfield. Its most electrifying passage, 
as Wilson notes, contains a warning against a "towering genius," 
thirsting and burning for distinction, who would disdain to 
perpetuate a government which would only be a monument to 
the fame of others, and might destroy the existing fabric either 
by "emancipating slaves or enslaving freemen." As Wilson ob- 
serves, the warning is ambiguous, and this Ubermensch is de- 
scribed "with a fire that seemed to derive as much from admira- 
tion as from apprehension." The ambiguity, Wilson perceives, 
stems not only from the mingling of attraction and dread with 


which Lincoln seems to regard the figure he has conjured, but 
from his apparent neutrality with respect to the moral quality of 
acts of emancipation and of enslavement. "It was as if," writes Wil- 
son, "he had not only foreseen the drama but had even seen all 
around it, with a kind of poetic objectivity, aware of the various 
points of view that the world must take toward its protagonist." 1 
Thus the indictment we have drawn in the first chapter of this 
work, the indictment of Lincoln as master villain of American his- 
tory, was conceived long before revisionist historiography; indeed, 
it was conceived as an abstract possibility long before the events 
the historians recorded. For when Lincoln in 1838 saw that the 
emancipation of the slaves might be possible, or might be believed 
to be possible, only by the overthrow of the government estab- 
lished by the Fathers, he anticipated in principle every profound 
objection to the role he one day unhesitatingly played. "He had 
in some sense imagined [the] drama himself had even pre- 
figured Booth and the aspect he would wear for Booth when 
the latter would leap down from the Presidential box crying 'Sic 
semper tyrannis!'" 2 For in the Lyceum speech Lincoln had com- 
pared the possible future American Emancipatorwho might be 
the destroyer of the American republicto Caesar. And thus had 
he, as Wilson indicates, cast the role of the American Brutus 
twenty-seven years before it was played by Booth. 

The task of interpreting the thought of Lincoln is very different 
from interpreting that of Douglas. In part this stems from the 
difference in the situations of the two men: Douglas early became 
and remained a national figure and was almost continuously oc- 
cupied with politics on the highest level. From the fact that he 
was a leading contender for his party's presidential nomination 
from 1852 on, he was a prisoner of that peculiar difficulty of 
American politics, "availability." That there was a large consist- 
ency to everything he did, we believe and have maintained; but 
to educe it from the heat of the political battles, in which every- 
thing he did and said was struck off, has been like resolving many 
contrary component forces into a single vector. Lincoln's career, 
on the contrary, until 1854, was as undistinguished as Douglas's 
had been brilliant. He became a skilled practitioner of the arts 
of party politics; he was a ranking Whig in his home state; but 
his record was that of a party faithful, a wheel horse of the 
machine, adept in caucuses, "smoke-filled rooms," and on the 
stump. His most notable achievement was in securing the removal 


of the state capital from Vandalia to Springfield. His speeches 
in the state legislature, and in Congress during his one term, 
contain rhetorical flights and some robust humor suggestive of 
powers capable of greater objects than the advocacy of Whig 
orthodoxy. Yet it is difficult to imagine this oratory commanding 
much attention today had the career of its author not taken such 
a dramatic and unexpected turn. 

Or was it unexpected? Here we touch a tantalizing question, 
one assuredly close to the heart of Lincoln's amazing fascination. 
Did Lincoln, all the years he was, to put it bluntly, a hack 
politician, secretly fancy himself in the stupendous drama he had 
contemplated in the Lyceum speech? Was he serving his ap- 
prenticeship in politics with the conscious expectation of one day 
playing the master craftsman? We cannot answer these questions 
except by showing, as we propose to do, that all the while Lincoln 
was engaged in the more or less petty bread-and-butter party 
questions, during his early years, he also produced occasional 
pieces, of permanent value, upon "the great and durable question 
of the age." There are, in particular, two public addresses by 
Lincoln the Lyceum speech already mentioned and the Temper- 
ance Address delivered on Washington's Birthday, 1842, to the 
Springfield Washington Temperance Society in which Lincoln 
forecasts and diagnoses a political and moral crisis of popular 
government In neither of these speeches does he openly present 
the problem of slavery in the leading position it occupies in the 
Second Inaugural Rather does he see the difficulty of free govern- 
ment in the broader context of the eternal problem created by 
the power of evil passionsof which slavery is but a particular 
manifestation over mankind. Because the young Lincoln ob- 
served the forms of the occasions upon which he spoke, the highly 
unconventional content of his thought has been overlooked for 
its conventional expression. Yet both these pieces are intellectual 
tours de force, and at least one of them, the Temperance Address, 
is a literary masterpiece and a masterpiece of political satire. 
The two speeches complement each other. The central topic of 
both is the same, but the first emphasizes the political side, the 
second the moral. For Lincoln, the question of the "capability 
of a people to govern themselves* was always twofold: it referred 
both to the viability of popular political institutions and to their 
moral basis in the individual men who must make those institu- 
tions work If the men who exercised the decisive influence in a 


popular government were not themselves "self-governed" i.e., 
self -controlled then it was vain to expect the institutions to be 
so. The two speeches describe the leading dangers, as Lincoln 
saw them, that evil passions might insinuate themselves into the 
operation of a free government and thereby destroy it. 

To say that Lincoln, as he was mastering the politician's craft 
and outwardly leading a life hardly distinguishable from countless 
others, had all the while contemplated and exerted himself to 
prepare for the greatest role in the greatest crisis he could imagine 
coming in his lifetime is, as we have said, to disturb somewhat 
the popular image of Lincoln as the prototype of the common 
man. And it is no light matter, for anyone deeply affected by 
Lincoln's Civil War oratory, to trouble this much-loved image. 
For no one did more than Lincoln himself to promote belief in 
the uncommon resources of the common man. In so far as Lincoln 
as President permitted himself to be celebrated, he was ever care- 
ful that his own achievement, no less than his office, be considered 
representative. That Lincoln's "uncommon commonness" was a 
studied effect a work of art so successful that all traces of art 
have vanished from it may therefore prove somewhat unsettling. 
In a sense, it throws doubt upon the truth of the assumption 
upon which Lincoln's advocacy of the people's cause rested: that 
the "people," without leaders uniquely endowed or specially 
trained, could furnish out of their midst men for any office or 
contingency. Lincoln sounded this theme in his very first message 
to Congress, July 4, 1861, upon the outbreak of hostilities: 

This is essentially a people's contest ... a struggle for main- 
taining in the world that form and substance of government 
whose leading object is to elevate the condition of men . . . 

And from the outset this meant a government that was not only 
for the people but by and of them: 

It may be affirmed, without extravagance, that the free in- 
stitutions we enjoy have developed the powers and improved 
the condition of our whole people, beyond any example in 
the world . . . there are many single regiments whose mem- 
bers, one and another, possess full practical knowledge of 


all the arts, sciences, and professions . . . and there is scarcely 
one from which there could not be selected a President, a 
Cabinet, a Congress, and perhaps a court, abundantly com- 
petent to administer the Government itself! 

And again: 

Great honor is due to those officers who remained true, 
despite the example of their treacherous associates; but the 
greatest honor, and most important fact of all, is the unani- 
mous firmness of the common soldiers and common sailors. 
To the last man, so far as known, they have successfully 
resisted the traitorous efforts of those whose commands, but 
an hour before, they obeyed as absolute law. This is the 
patriotic instinct of plain people. They understand, without 
an argument, that the destroying the Government which was 
made by Washington means no good to them. 8 

Toward the end of the war he addressed an Ohio regiment, 

I happen temporarily to occupy this big White House. I am 
a living witness that any one of your children may look to 
come here as my father's child has. 

But Lincoln's praise of the ability, fidelity, and wisdom of plain 
people, of common soldiers and sailors, is raised to a higher and 
different level at Gettysburg. Upon this level it is transformed 
into a capacity for glory: 

The world will little note, nor long remember, what we say 
here, but it can never forget what they did here. 

The acid title of Richard Hofstadter's widely read essay in 
The American Political Tradition, "Abraham Lincoln and the 
Self-Made Myth," ungraciously expresses an important truth. 
Simple souls have indeed been harmlessly imposed upon to think 
that Lincoln really did not expect his words to be recalled. Yet 
Lincoln knew, as well as Pericles or Churchill, how utterly the 
immortality of the deed depends upon the immortality of the 
word. Tn the beginning was the Word." Lincoln knew that only 
as the incantation upon the silent field renewed the sacred fire 
which had passed from those who had given their last full 
measure would freedom be born again. It is entirely improbable 


that Lincoln performed his task with such skill and did not know 
what he was doing. It is impossible he should have understood 
the function of his own oratory whose premise is that, unless 
its exhortation is obeyed, these dead shall have died in vain 
without understanding the even greater renown success would 
confer upon him. But again this brings us to the question with 
which we began this work. Was the cause of popular government 
but the matter from which Lincoln's own fame was to be 
wrought? Glory was traditionally the prerogative of kings and 
noblemen, and in war the path of glory was supposedly found. 
The common people, in their wretched anonymous millions, had 
perished through the ages for the triumphal processions of these 
usually unscarred heroes. Did Lincoln, like the "towering genius" 
of the Lyceum speech, deliberately lead the American people 
down the path to war because in no other way could he escape 
the common fate and lot for which his otherwise commonplace 
career seemed destined? 

More, probably, has been written of Lincoln in less than a 
single century than of any political figure of whom the records 
survive. Yet in some respects the vast accretion of Lincolniana 
has shrouded rather than disclosed the figure of the man within. 
One reason, we suggest, is that few of those who have literally 
left no stone (or log or rail) unturned in the quest for every day 
in his life have asked what that Me consisted in, from the point 
of view of their subject. Lincoln himself was singularly uninter- 
ested in the facts that have so fascinated posterity. Lord Charn- 
wood recounts that "when he had been nominated for the Presi- 
dency he was asked for material for an account of his early life. 
Why,' he said, 'it is great folly to attempt to make anything out 
of me or my early life. It can all be condensed into a single 
sentence; and that sentence you will find in Gray's Elegy: 'The 
short and simple annals of the poor.' That's my life, and that's 
all you or anyone else can make out of it/" Of course when he 
said this he was running for office, and Lincoln's identification 
with the "poor," the "plain people," and the "common" folk was 
as much a part of his platform as opposition to the spread of 
slavery. Lincoln was a great actor, and he did not step out of 
character. Yet the lack of interest he displayed in the story of his 
own lif e was not affected. Great acting is also born of conviction, 
and Lincoln believed in the role he played. The difficulty lies 
in identifying that role. Lincoln was not uninterested in himself, 


as is shown by the extreme self -consciousness he sometimes dis- 
played, nor assuredly did he undervalue himself. But Lincoln did 
not see in commonplace occurrences the record of the life of 
which he was so conscious. 

I was born and have ever remained in the most humble 
walks of life. I have no wealthy or popular relations to recom- 
mend me. My case is thrown exclusively upon the independ- 
ent voters of this county, and if elected they will have 
conferred a favor upon me, for which I shall be unremitting 
in my labors to compensate. But if the good people in their 
wisdom shall see fit to keep me in the background, I have 
been too familiar with disappointments to be very much 
chagrined. 4 

With such statements in mind Professor Hofstadter has well said 
that "the first author of the Lincoln legend and the greatest of 
the Lincoln dramatists was Lincoln himself." It is not surprising, 
then, that so much effort has been made to find in the humble 
walks of his life and in his acquaintance with grief and dis- 
appointment the secrets of Lincoln's strength. 

Yet in this same address to the people of Sangamon County, 
when he first ran for elective office (for the state assembly, for 
which he was defeated), Lincoln also used these highly revealing 
words: "Every man is said to have his peculiar ambition. Whether 
it be true or not, I can say for one that I have no other so great 
as that of being truly esteemed of my fellow men, by rendering 
myself worthy of their esteem." Since this statement was made 
in an election handbill, there can be no question that "being 
truly esteemed" included receiving their suffrages. And we know 
that in a democracy a man does not render himself worthy i.e., 
does not cause himself to be thus "esteemed" merely by culti- 
vating virtue, as virtue was traditionally understood. 

That man," wrote Herndon, his law partner for seventeen years 
in Springfield, "who thinks Lincoln calmly gathered his robes 
about him, waiting for the people to call him, has a very erroneous 
knowledge of Lincoln. He was always calculating and planning 
ahead. His ambition was a little engine that knew no rest" Lincoln 
was ambitious, and ambition, as he one day wrote to General 
Hooker, *\vithin reasonable bounds does good rather than harm." 
But what bounds does reason prescribe? To put the problem in 
its classic form: Are the things that make a man worthy of the 


esteem of his fellow men the same as the things that cause him 
to be esteemed? In a sense the whole case for popular government 
rests upon the affirmation of the ultimate identity of the two; 
even as the case against popular government, from Plato's 
Apology of Socrates on down, has rested upon the denial of 
their compatibility, much less identity. If the things a man must 
do to achieve office in a democracy, particularly high office, are 
degrading to him as is so frequently believedthen it is impossi- 
ble to believe seriously that the government of such men is 
elevating. If the "best men" hold in contempt the esteem Lincoln 
so avidly sought, then government of and by the people cannot 
long endure. How to reconcile the demands of virtue, of a self- 
respect conscious of no stooping in its conquest of honor, with 
the achievement of the honor which flows from popular recogni- 
tion, hoc opus, hie labor est. Woodrow Wilson once remarked 
that the phenomenon of Lincoln had made it possible to believe 
in democracy. Wilson was acutely sensitive to the tension between 
love of fame and love of excellence; he knew that their reconcilia- 
tion was problematical and that democracy, not as something to 
be suffered, but as something to be loved, as an embodiment 
of man's aspiration, required a conviction that a man of the 
people, chosen by the people, could exemplify moral and 
intellectual greatness. 

Lincoln has been understood and correctly understood as the 
supreme advocate of the cause of popular government. But it is 
not because he saw no problem, no difficulty, in adopting that 
advocacy. Noble things are difficult, said Aristotle, and the nobler 
more difficult. Lincoln saw popular government as most noble and 
most difficult. His First Inaugural address exhorts "a patient con* 
fidence in the ultimate justice of the people." Yet the Second 
Inaugural tells us that this same people had offended divine 
justice; and a terrible punishment, willed not by man, was neces- 
sary to expiate the offense. The "ultimate justice" of the people 
depends, therefore, upon a purification which it is not in their 
own unaided power to accomplish. A case against the people, 
as well as for diem, was present in Lincoln's thought from begin- 
ning to end. Because he grappled with this antagonism, Lincoln's 
thought, for all the pristine clarity with which he expressed 
himself, is extraordinarily complex. Whether Lincoln grappled 
successfully in the first great phase of his career, the long duel with 


Douglas, it will be our duty to inquire. The answer to the question 
will, in considerable measure, tell us whether, in Wilson's sense, we 
are entitled to believe in democracy. Of one flung, however, we 
may be certain. Lincoln would never have accepted as his own 
justification the fact that, in the end, he was chosen by the people 
and Douglas rejected. For the whole struggle with Douglas 
revolved precisely around the question of tie moral demands 
which must be obeyed by a people if the people themselves 
are to possess the title deeds to respect and obedience. How 
conscious Lincoln was of this difficulty, we may now observe by 
turning to his Lyceum speech of 1838. 

This speech, being a set piece, has its exordium and peroration. 
It begins by stating its subject, "the perpetuation of our political 
institutions," and continues celebrating the happy circumstances 
of the American people, in peaceful possession of the fairest 
portion of the earth and with a political system "conducing more 
essentially to the ends of civil and religious liberty, than any of 
which the history of former times tells us." But, says Lincoln, 
"We toiled not in the acquirement or establishment of them 
they are a legacy bequeathed us, by a once hardy, brave, and 
patriotic, but now lamented and departed race of ancestors. 
Theirs was the task (and nobly they performed it) to possess 
themselves, and through themselves, us, of this goodly land; and 
to uprear upon its hills and valleys, a political edifice of liberty 
and equal rights; 'tis ours only, to transmit these ... to the latest 
generation . . ." We are immediately struck by the resemblance 
to the great speech of a quarter century after, whose opening 
sentence is an exquisite condensation of the foregoing. Yet the 
differences are not merely literary. This is not an immature ver- 
sion; its more elaborate presentation will help considerably to 
throw into relief the majestic austerities of the Gettysburg 
Address. Let us note for the present this further resemblance: 
both speeches begin with a pious invocation of the Fathers; they 
are the Founders who, like Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, by their 
merit brought blessings to us, their descendants; and, like Moses, 
gave the laws which we have the lesser task of maintaining. Yet 
both speeches, of 1838 and 1863, as they proceed-the one prophe- 


sying, the other proclaimingtell of a crisis and test greater than 
that of the Fathers, which must be passed if the good allegedly 
possessed, or brought into the world by them, is truly to be 
achieved. But still more: the greatness of the test is also a measure 
of the greatness of the good and of the men who achieved it. 
The "new birth of freedom" is not a mere renewal of the old; it 
is also a transcendence of it. We shall see this theme expressed 
with great subtlety in the 1838 speech, although without the 
Shakespearean pathos of the words spoken upon the battlefield. 

Now Lincoln asks how shall we perform this duty the duty to 
transmit the land "unprofaned by the foot of the invader," the 
institutions "undecayed by the lapse of time and untorn by usurpa- 
tion"? In good Whig fashion he dismisses all foreign danger. "As 
a nation of freemen we must live through all time, or die by 
suicide." Then comes the body of the address, in which are spelled 
out the principal dangers threatening our polity from within. 

This has three main parts. The first deals with the present 
evils of mob rule, which has been sweeping the country. The 
second, the future danger of the "towering genius" who will seize 
the opportunity created by the confusion raised by the mob to 
erect one-man rule. Third is also a future danger, resulting from 
the fading public spirit of the Revolution, the release of base 
passions originally held in check by or turned against a common 
enemy and for some time subdued by the memory of the 

The section dealing with mob rule is the lengthiest, although 
that dealing with the dangerous leader is, conspicuously, the 
central one. The evils of mob rule, in Lincoln's account, are 
threefold: the direct evils of unlawful violence; the indirect evil, 
by which unpunished crimes encourage the 'lawless in spirit . . . 
to become lawless in practice"; and last and worst, the aliena- 
tion of the feelings of "good men" and the "best citizens" from 
the government. It is this alienation which sets the stage for the 
unprincipled leader. 

Let us examine Lincoln's account of the "mobocratic spirit, 
which all must admit, is now abroad in the land." Although he 
says its depredations are confined to no single part of the country, 
but "Alike . . . spring up among the pleasure hunting masters 
of Southern slaves, and die order loving citizens of the land of 
steady habits," his preface can hardly be said to show sectional 


impartiality. And all his actual episodes are lynchings in slave 
states. However, there is more impartiality than strikes the eye. 
Events in Illinois, we shall see, are in the foreground of Lincoln's 
attention, and his choosing to discuss home problems by referring 
to happenings elsewhere is characteristic of his rhetorical tech- 
nique. Those happening in the State of Mississippi, and at St. 
Louis, are, perhaps, the most dangerous in example and revolting 
to humanity ." 

In the Mississippi case, they first commenced by hanging the 
regular gamblers; a set of men, certainly not following for 
a livelihood, a very useful, or very honest occupation; but 
one which, so far from being forbidden by the laws, was 
actually licensed by an act of the Legislature, passed but a 
single year before. Next, negroes, suspected of conspiring to 
raise an insurrection, were caught up and hanged in all parts 
of the State: then, white men, supposed to be leagued with 
negroes; and finally, strangers, from neighboring States, going 
thither on business, were in many instances subjected to the 
same fate. 

Thus, Lincoln exclaims, the process went on, from gamblers to 
Negroes, to white citizens, to strangers, "till dead men were seen 
literally dangling from the boughs of trees upon every road side; 
and in numbers almost sufficient, to rival the native Spanish moss 
of the country, as a drapery of the forest." 

The second "horror-striking scene" concerns a mulatto man in 
St. Louis whose "story is short; and is perhaps, the most highly 
tragic, of anything of its length . . ." This man was "seized in 
the street, dragged to the suburbs . . . chained to a tree, and 
actually burned to death . . . within a single hour from the time 
he had been a freeman, attending to his own business, and at 
peace with the world." 

Next Lincoln turns to explain how the indirect consequences 
are worse than the direct. In so doing he employs one of his 
curious rhetorical dtmarclies, which interrupts the edifying but 
nonetheless platitudinous moralizing. We would expect him to 
say, "Bad as these things are, their potential for evil is still greater." 
Instead, he goes to considerable-nay, almost shocking-length to 
show that at least in the case of the gamblers and the St. Louis 
mulatto no great harm had been done at all. 


Abstractly considered, the hanging of the gamblers . . . was 
of but little consequence. They constitute a portion of popu- 
lation, that is worse than useless in any community; and 
their death, if no pernicious example be set by it, is never 
matter of reasonable regret with any one. If they were 
annually swept, from the stage of existence, by the plague 
or smallpox, honest men would, perhaps, be much profited, 
by the operation. 


Similar too, is the correct reasoning, in regard to the burning 
of the negro at St. Louis. He had forfeited his life, by the 
perpetration of an outrageous murder, upon one of the most 
worthy and respectable citizens of the city; and had he not 
died as he did, he must have died by sentence of the law, in 
a very short time. As to him alone, it was as well the way 
it was, as it could otherwise have been. 

We must remark the way in which Lincoln deliberately paints 
a contrast between a "mulatto" dragged to a flaming death within 
an hour of the time he had been free, minding his own business 
and at peace with the world, and a "negro" who had murdered 
a leading citizen. Surely the portrayal of the former hardly 
suggests the latter! But is it ever "as well . . . as it could otherwise 
have been" to burn a man who has not even been convicted 
of a crime? As to the gamblers, when is it "never matter of reason- 
able regret" for men to be lynched, particularly, as Lincoln has 
been at pains to point out (thus also heightening the contrast, 
as with the peaceful mulatto turned negro-murderer), when they 
have pursued a vocation sanctioned by law? These strange 
passages, however, are not nearly so conspicuous in context. For 
there they are prefaced with the observation that the direct con- 
sequences of mob rule "are, comparatively speaking, but a small 
evil; and much of its dangers consists, in the proneness of our 
minds, to regard its direct, as its only consequences." Hence the 
"abstract consideration" concerning the gamblers and the "correct 
reasoning" concerning the St. Louis lynching are presented as 
examples of erroneous judgments toward which our minds are 
said to be prone. Such reasoning, according to Lincoln, may 
extenuate or even justify mob violence; and he tells us that it is 
important both to distinguish this reasoning from the blind 
prejudice of the mob and to realize that it may also mislead us. 


Yet Lincoln did not go to the lengths he did to present these 
cases in such different lights, in successive paragraphs, only to 
make the simple point above. The entire speech is a defense of 
the rule of law from all forms of arbitrary rule. The mob is one 
extreme of arbitrariness, the Caesar-dictator another; and the ex- 
treme of one kind of arbitrariness tends to engender the other, as 
the sequel will tell us. The idea of the rule of law rejects the 
notion that any individual or any group has sufficient wisdom 
and virtue to be trusted with the decision of individual cases on 
their own merits, without regard to general rules established by 
and through the authority of the whole community. Yet the fact 
remains, as Lincoln insinuates, that, abstractly considered, the 
rule of law is inferior to discretionary rule, just because each case 
would be better decided if it could be decided on its own merits. 
And it is as important to recognize the abstract superiority of 
discretionary rule as it is to recognize its practical inferiority. 

Why so? Because all law aims at abstract justice, with respect 
to which it is a means. This end, which is translegal, is a percep- 
tion of the discretionary judgment of wise men; and the law 
must be informed by such judgmentor be believed to be so 
informed if it is to command respect. Men will submit to abuses 
tolerated by the law if they feel these abuses are tolerated rather 
than enjoined or abetted by the law. In the fifties Lincoln was 
again and again to refer to the proposition, "all men are created 
equal," as an "abstract truth," a truth which was the life principle 
of American law. The implications of this truth were only partially 
realized, even for white men, and largely denied as far as black 
men were concerned. Yet it supplied the direction, the meaning, 
of all good laws in this country, although the attempt at that time 
to achieve all that might and ought ultimately to be demanded 
in its name would have been disastrous. A law is foolish which 
does not aim at abstract or intrinsic justice; and so is it foolish 
to attempt to achieve abstract justice as the sole good by 
succumbing to the fallacy to which the mind is prone, which 
regards direct consequences as if they were the only conse- 
quences. Those who believe anything sanctioned by law is right 
commit one great error; those who believe the law should sanc- 
tion only what is right commit another. Either error might 
result in foolish laws; and, although a foolish law may be prefera- 
ble to a wise dictator, a wise law is preferable to both. 


Lincoln minimized the intrinsic evil of hanging gamblers and 
burning murderers without due process of law. But there is, by 
contrast, no attempt, as there was no possibility, of minimizing 
the evil of the many lynchings caused by the frenzied fear of 
servile insurrection. The case of the gamblers, it is clear in 
retrospect, was mentioned chiefly because of its involvement in 
this more serious episode. The St. Louis affair, moreover, whose 
Intrinsic importance Lincoln downgrades sharply, also was in- 
volved in a chain of events. Lincoln does not choose to identify 
these explicitly, for reasons we must attempt to fathom. Toward 
the end of paragraph nine, however, he enumerates as follows 
some of the kinds of mob violence which, if they are not stopped, 
will certainly lead to the overthrow of our political system: 

. . . whenever the vicious portion of the population shall 
be permitted to gather in bands of hundreds and thousands, 
and burn churches, ravage and rob provision-stores, throw 
printing presses into rivers, shoot editors, and hang and burn 
obnoxious persons at pleasure, and with impunity; depend 
upon it, this Government cannot last. 

At this point there is, in the new (1954) collected edition of 
Lincoln's works, the following annotation: 

Dwelling as he does on the horrors of lynch law in Mississippi 
and Missouri, Lincoln may seem remiss in ignoring, save for 
this phrase, the lynching at Alton, Illinois, on November 7, 
1837, of the abolitionist editor Elijah Parish Lovejoy. It is 
somewhat too obvious and naive to assume that Lincoln was 
being politic in avoiding reference to an episode so recent 
and so vivid in the recollection of his audience. Rather it 
seems possible that he chose a subtler way of pricking the 
conscience of his audience than by direct denunciation. 
Members of the Lyceum who listened to Lincoln without 
sensing the specter of Lovejoy in their midst must have been 
obtuse indeed. 6 

It is somewhat incongruous that Mr. Easier, Lincoln's editor, 
thinks it naive to assume a politician is being politic. In fact, 
however, the subtlety which he correctly imputes to Lincoln ex- 
emplifies that very quality. It should be known that the Lovejoy 
killing, some eleven weeks before the Lyceum speech, was the 
most famous abolitionist martyrdom until John Brown. And 


Alton (to be the scene of the last joint debate) was a town in 
southern Illinois, some fifty or sixty miles from Springfield, on the 
east bank of the Mississippi, near St. Louis. It was a wealthy and 
growing community, the commercial rival of St. Louis for the 
trade of the Deep South. Alton's traders were mostly New 
Englanders, and their attitudes were much like those of the cotton 
Whigs of Boston: they had no use for either slavery or abolition. 
Lovejoy, a Presbyterian minister turned anti-slavery (and also 
anti-Catholic) crusader, had been operating in St. Louis for some 
time. In his paper he had castigated both the crowd which had 
lynched Mclntosh and the judge who had charged the grand jury 
not to return indictments for the lynching if, as he pointed out 
for their convenience, they found that "the deed was done by 
'congregated thousands' whose names could not be ascertained." 6 
It was Lovejoy's activity in the Mclntosh business which led the 
mob to throw his press into the river for the first time (there were 
three more times to come) and caused him to move across the 
Mississippi to Alton. There his activities led to renewed mob 
violence, and he was finally shot down as, gun in hand, he and 
a band of armed supporters sought to defend his newly arrived 
fourth press in the warehouse in which it had just been stored. 
It should be realized that the economic well-being of Alton, in 
competition with St. Louis, depended upon the favor of New 
Orleans customers. And Illinois, during the previous year, had 
been bombarded (in common with other northern states) with 
petitions and memorials from slave-state legislatures to take action 
against abolitionism. The legislature had responded, in January 
1837 a year before the Lyceum speech with resolutions de- 
nouncing abolitionism, although not recommending any further 
action against it. Six weeks after these resolutions, a protest 
against them was spread upon the journal of the House, signed 
by Dan Stone and A. Lincoln, representatives of Sangamon 
County, which declared that "the institution of slavery is founded 
on both injustice and bad policy, but that the promulgation 
of abolition doctrines tends rather to increase than abate its 
evils . . ." The protest is mild enough. Where the resolutions had 
said that Congress "cannot abolish slavery in the District of Co- 
lumbia, against the consent of the citizens of said District without 
a manifest breach of good faith," Lincoln and Stone insisted that 
Congress had the power but ought not to exercise it "unless at the 
request of the people of said District." The crucial difference, 


without question, was the insistence that slavery itself was unjust 
Even here there is more of a shift of emphasis than a break with 
the majority. For the joint select committee which had reported 
the resolutions, even while denouncing abolitionism in unmeas- 
ured terms, had deeply deplored "the unfortunate condition of 
our fellow-men, whose lots are cast in thraldom in a land of liberty 
and peace/' 7 

But why the delay of six weeks? Beveridge at least does not 
hesitate to suggest that Lincoln was being "politic." "If Lincoln 
and Stone held the opinions expressed in their protest . . . they 
were not without reasons of practical politics for their delay. They 
were intent upon securing the permanent location of the state 
capital at Springfield. Nothing must interfere with that supreme 
purpose, no member be offended unnecessarily, no risk hazarded 
of losing a single vote without urgent cause. Not until that matter 
had been settled did they submit their views on the slavery 
question." 8 It is not necessary to add, as Beveridge does, that 
"Lincoln subordinated everything to Springfield's interest," to see 
that he was not a man to squander political credit The problem 
of political rhetoric is treated more explicitly in the Temperance 
Address; yet Lincoln's protest with Stone against the anti-abolition 
resolutions of the Illinois legislature and his handling of the same 
question in the Lyceum Address already exemplify his lifelong 
conception of political leadership. That conception calls for 
mollifying, never antagonizing, the feelings of those whom he 
would lead. So to do was for Lincoln more than an act of pru- 
dence, it partook of a moral imperative: for if the cause of 
free government was noble, then a necessary condition of leader- 
ship in such a government could not be ignoble. But this, in 
turn, would have been absurd if deference to popular feelings 
were indiscriminate: Lincoln's attack upon the mob, and the 
passions the mob represented, shows that this is not his drift. 
But Lincoln believed, and always found, in popular demands 
an aspiration for justice, an aspiration for what was noble. Even 
the mob that killed Lovejoy might have felt it was defending 
the Constitution or the rights of Catholics, whom Lovejoy vilely 
slandered. The task of a leader is to find the point of coincidence 
between the moral demands which are dear to the men he would 
lead and their self-interests, and to turn this, not only against the 
unjust self-interests of others, but against the unjust self-interests 
of his own followers. The popular leader must be prepared to 


gratify the less-than-noble but not immoral demands of his 
would-be supporters if he is to have their support for the higher 
purposes of statesmanship. To hold these meaner services in con- 
tempt is to abandon popular government to those who have only 
mean ends, and to make of popular government a mean thing. 
Men may be led toward higher purposes of which they are 
scarcely conscious, if those who hold these purposes first show 
concern for and an ability to gratify their less noble demands. 

There can be no doubt that the mob violence Lincoln had in 
mind when he composed the Lyceum speech, the violence which 
supplies the subject matter for nearly two thirds of that speech, 
was exclusively violence arising from abolitionism and the reaction 
to it. Or, to be more just, we should say that it was violence 
arising from the renewed life and vigor of the institution of chattel 
slavery, which was caused by the cotton gin. This economic 
renewal of slavery falsified all the Fathers' expectations concern- 
ing the institution. Without this renewal there would have been 
neither northern abolitionism nor the southern reaction to aboli- 
tionism. Yet Lincoln keeps this crucial cause of mob violence out 
of sight, choosing not to make pro- and anti-slavery passions his 
theme. The prudential reasons for this are easy to see: abolition- 
ism was probably not appreciably more popular in Springfield 
than in Alton; if he had attacked the Alton mobs for their attack 
on Lovejoy, he would have accomplished nothing but his own 
political ruin. But if Lincoln could not afford to be identified 
with Lovejoy's cause, neither did he have any wish to advance 
it, since Lovejoy's cause was in certain respects the same as the 
mob's. For abolitionism was precisely one of those things that, 
with an eye fixed on "abstract" justice alone, and careless of 
consequences, would also have overthrown the Constitution. 

The theme of abolitionism is dealt with explicitly only once 
in the address. It occurs at the end of the section on mob rule, as 
the second part of the discussion of the remedy for mob rule. The 
principal remedy is "political religion," which shall be treated 
at length later; but redress of grievances through change of laws 
is a supplement to the aforesaid religion. Lincoln's sole example 
of grievances is "the promulgation of abolitionism." In any such 
case, he says: 

one of two positions is necessarily true; that is, the thing 
is right within itself, and therefore deserves the protection 


of all law and all good citizens; or, it is wrong, and therefore 
proper to be prohibited by legal enactments; and in neither 
case, is the interposition of mob law, either necessary, justi- 
fiable, or excusable. 

It is remarkable that Lincoln apparently considers positive 
action based upon the intrinsic lightness or wrongness of the 
doctrine as exhaustive alternatives, saying nothing of the right 
of speech to be protected irrespective of its quality. This could 
hardly have been an oversight, since freedom of speech was 
ground on which the abolitionists stridently took their stand. One 
reason, we suggest, is that Lincoln had publicly gone on record 
that slavery was unjust; and it followed that abolition of slavery 
was, "within itself," therefore just. That Lincoln believed the 
abolitionists deserved the protection of law is, in one sense, the 
burden of the entire speech; but it is a message which Lincoln 
believes can better be conveyed if mob law is attacked as wrong 
rather than abolition defended. For abolitionism, although right 
"within itself," is not unqualifiedly right. Abolitionism, as we 
have suggested, wished to overthrow slavery, not by means 
sanctioned by the Constitution, but by means outside the Con- 
stitution. Abolitionists did not claim freedom of speech in order 
to persuade men lawfully to rid themselves of slavery. The lawful 
undermining of slavery, which had seen six of the original thirteen 
states abolish it in the fifty years after independence, and active 
agitation against slavery continue to win public favor in many 
southern states, had been arrested and reversed. The abolitionism 
of the Garrison and Lovejoy variety which did much to reverse 
this trend was directed exclusively toward opinion in the free 
states, toward convincing those who had no constitutional power 
over slavery where it existed. Although abolitionists sometimes 
denied the illegality of their aims, they were as unconvincing 
as the Communists in our day who have said they intend nothing 
but victory at the polls. As we have already observed, many de- 
nounced the Constitution and Union openly. For the rest it made 
absolutely no sense to seek converts to their cause in New York, 
Massachusetts, or Illinois, unless the power of the free states was 
to be eventually exerted against slavery in the slave states. 
Abolition aimed to create an opinion which would sanction the 
use of federal power by national majorities to interfere with 
slavery; and the fear that the government itself would become 


an agency of unlawful violence was at the root of much of the 
passion directed against abolitionists. Lincoln's position was that 
slavery, like gambling, might be wrong in itself and yet be 
sanctioned by law. But to take the short, illegal way with slavery 
or gambling is also wrong, just as it was wrong to take the short, 
illegal way with abolitionists. The abolitionists, taking their 
unpopular stand under the claim of a right to freedom of speech, 
had constitutional sanction (generally speaking, for the Four- 
teenth Amendment had not yet brought the First Amendment 
to bear upon the states) for their means, although none for their 
ends. The anti-abolitionist mobs, on the other hand, had good 
constitutional ground for their opposition to abolitionism but none 
for their violent methods. Both abolitionism and anti-abolitionism 
undermined respect for the law, and Lincoln attacked both at 
the point common to both, in their tendency to lawlessness. 

But what of Lincoln's silence on the right of free speech? That 
abolition was abstractly right, and therefore deserved legal pro- 
tection, does not explain Lincoln's apparent readiness to place 
under legislative ban any doctrine wrong "within itself." Here, 
however, there is no equivocation or reserve: Lincoln never 
apparently gave the slightest credence to the doctrine wide- 
spread in our time, that there is any indefeasible right to promul- 
gate freely doctrines "wrong within themselves." Lincoln thought, 
as he said during the Civil War, that a government "thoroughly 
imbued with a reverence for the guaranteed rights of individuals" 
is slow to move against abuses of personal liberty. But there are 
circumstances in which such a government may be endangered 
by such abuses and the attempt at indiscriminate protection of 
all so-called personal liberties would be a vain folly. For not only 
may the government whose existence alone protects all rights be 
endangered by some of them, but the abuse of some rights by 
some people may lead to the invasion of other rights of other 
people. It is not always possible simultaneously to protect all 
rights, and then a choice must be made between those of greater 
and those of lesser importance. "Must I shoot a simple-minded 
soldier boy who deserts," asked Lincoln, in that memorable 
wartime pronouncement, "while I must not touch a hair of a wily 
agitator who induces him to desert? This is nonetheless injurious 
when effected by getting a father, or brother, or friend into a 
public meeting, and there working upon his feelings till he is 


persuaded to write the soldier boy that he is fighting in a bad 
cause, for a wicked administration of a contemptible government, 
too weak to arrest and punish him if he shall desert. I think that, 
in such a case, to silence the agitator and save the boy is not 
only constitutional but withal a great mercy." 9 Freedom of speech 
is very precious, but so are justice and mercy, and there are 
times when the latter take precedence of the former. Can it be 
doubted that if the spread of the doctrine of the "positive good" 
of chattel slavery oould have been arrested by legal enactment 
(we do not say that it could have), its suppression would have 
been just and merciful? It was Lincoln's belief that the spread of 
the opinion that slavery was morally rightas distinct from 
expedient was the sufficient cause of all the differences which, 
in 1860, were beyond compromise. Without it there would have 
been no war. As a rule, Lincoln was inclined to regard the in- 
direct evils of suppressing speech as outweighing any direct good. 
But what he said in 1838 about the propriety of suppressing 
doctrines wrong in themselves is fully consistent with what he said 
at Cooper Union in 1860. When he then pointed out to the South 
that the Republican party had no abolitionist aims, never had 
had them, and had always disavowed them, he asked: 

These natural, and apparently adequate means all failing, 
what will convince them? This, and this only: cease to call 
slavery wrong, and join them in calling it right . . . Senator 
Douglas's new sedition law must be enacted and enforced, 
suppressing all declarations that slavery is wrong . . . 

Nor can we justifiably withhold this, on any ground save 
our conviction that slavery is wrong. If slavery is right, all 
words, acts, laws, and constitutions against it, are themselves 
wrong, and should be silenced, and swept away. 10 

If slavery is right, all words against it are wrong and should be 
silenced. But if slavery is not right, all words advocating it are 
wrong. In a free society, in which the opinions formed by speech 
are the basis of all government, it is idle to forbid changes in 
the government while permitting changes in the opinion upon 
which the government rests. The Constitution guarantees to each 
state a republican form of government. Such guarantee like the 
guarantee that the representation of each state in the Senate 
shall not be reduced without its own consent implies a perpetuity 
in certain fundamentals of the Constitution, beyond the reach 


of all majorities, even in three fourths of the states. For Lincoln 
the primary task of political leadership was to maintain and 
strengthen the opinion upon which these funda rentals rested. 
There was no question that the advocacy of the opinions favorable 
to freedom was the only durably effective means of combating 
opinions hostile to freedom. This is what Lincoln believed he was 
doing throughout his long struggle with Douglas. And Lincoln 
himself never advocated sedition laws even in the Cooper 
Union speech. All he did was to concede the justice of Douglas's 
demand for such a law, if slavery was right. Freedom of speech, 
to Lincoln, was logically a subordinate right, subordinate to the 
right of personal freedom, of which it was an implication. A man 
cannot be a slave and have freedom of speech; and if the right 
to personal freedom is in question, there is no point in defending 
freedom of speech. Since Lincoln denied there was any difference 
in principle between the enslavement of white men and Negroes, 
and since the challenge of slavery extension involved the whole 
question of the right to personal freedom, he thought the issue 
must be joined on the paramount ground of the rightness or 
wrongness of slavery. Thus it was that he regarded Douglas's 
demand for a cessation of the discussion of the slavery question 
as wholly absurd. It was the only thing worth discussing. And 
upon the decision of this question hinged the fate of all liberties 
that men can enjoy only if they are legally free. However inex- 
pedient it may be to suppress the speech of those who advocate 
slavery, it would have been absurd to Lincoln to speak of an 
indefeasible right to advocate slavery. Certainly men threatened 
with enslavement by the spread of pro-slavery opinionand 
Lincoln believed the long-range threat to free white labor was 
nothing less than their reduction to the condition of Negro slaves 
have a moral right to any means that will destroy this threat. 

We have seen why, from the viewpoint both of prudence and 
abstract principle, it would have defeated Lincoln's purpose either 
to attack or defend abolitionism. But Lincoln had still another 
and more profound reason in the Lyceum speech to keep the 
slavery controversy for the most part out of sight For Lincoln 
meant to present an analysis of the problem of popular govern- 
ment in the light of the eternal antagonism within the human 
soul of reason and passion. For this purpose it was necessary not 
to permit the supposition that any immediate cause of conflict, 


however grave, was the sole or sufficient cause of a threat to 
the perpetuation of our political institutions. 

Of the indirect consequences of mob rule the worst, according 
to Lincoln, is that which breaks down the attachment of the 
people to their government Of particular danger is the alienation 
of "the feelings of the best citizens," leaving it "without friends, 
or with too few, and those few too weak/' "At such a time and 
under such circumstances, men of sufficient talent and ambition 
will not be found wanting to seize the opportunity, strike the blow, 
and overturn that fair fabric, which for the last half century, has 
been the fondest hope, of the lovers of freedom, throughout the 
world." The coup d'&at Lincoln appears to visualize is suggest- 
ive of what our century knows as Fascism; i.e., a political move- 
ment combining the bread and circuses of Caesarism with the 
demand for security by the middle classes, the "good men" de- 
scribed by Lincoln who 'love tranquillity" and cannot abide the 
turmoil and constant danger to the security of their persons, fami- 
lies, and property that an undisciplined populace, intoxicated by 
power, may threaten. A Whiggish protest against Jacksonian 
democracy may be sensed in this part of Lincoln's speech, as 
well as the spirit of the Federalist, the spirit of protest against 
the turbulence of Shays's rebellion, and the excesses of "democ- 
racy" that culminated in the Constitutional Convention of 1787. 
Yet Lincoln's analysis of the Caesarian danger, although it does 
not contradict the thesis of the Federalist, goes beyond it Lincoln 
sees a danger which Hamilton and Madison did not take into 
account and for which constitution building, however excellent, 
is insufficient. The following from #51 would seem representative 
of the doctrine of the celebrated papers: "Ambition must be made 
to counteract ambition. The interest of the man must be connected 
with the constitutional rights of the place . . . the private interest 
of every individual [must] be a sentinel over the public rights." 
It is Lincoln's teaching, however, that there are certain ambitions 
which cannot be counteracted by ambition, that there are 
circumstances, far from remote in their probability, in which there 
would be such a division of private interests as practically to 
nullify these interests as sentinels over public rights. Such dangers, 
according to Lincoln, can only be confronted by a mighty resolve 
which has no private motive. There must be a people capable, 
in the last resort, of sacrificing every conscious private interest 
and leaders capable of sacrificing every conscious ambition. 


Lincoln would grant that it is foolish to rely upon men's virtue 
when it is possible to prompt them by self-interest. But he would 
say that it is worse than foolish to think that self-interest can be 
the ultimate reliance of republican freedom. For men claiming 
republican freedom the right to self-government, a right whose 
very name is a synonym for virtue cannot doubt that they must 
vindicate their claim by their virtue, when the supreme test 

Lincoln's prophetic account of the coming crisis begins with a 
question. Why should we, after fifty years, suppose any danger 
different from those already faced and overcome? The answer is 
that "There are now, and will hereafter be, many causes, danger- 
ous in their tendency, which have not existed heretofore . . ." 

That our government should have been maintained in its 
original form from its establishment until now, is not much 
to be wondered at. It had many props to support it through 
that period, which now are decayed, and crumbled away. 
Through that period, it was felt by all, to be an undecided 
experiment; now, it is understood to be a successful one. 
Then, all that sought celebrity and fame, and distinction, 
expected to find them in the success of that experiment. 
Their cH was staked upon it: their destiny was inseparably 
linked with it Their ambition aspired to display before an 
admiring world, a practical demonstration of the truth of a 
proposition, which had hitherto been considered, at best no 
better, than problematical; namely, the capability of a people 
to govern themselves* If they succeeded, they were to be 
immortalized; their names were to be transferred to counties 
and cities, and rivers and mountains; and to be revered and 
sung, and toasted through all time. If they failed, they were 
to be called knaves and fools, and fanatics for a fleeting 
hour; then to be sunk and forgotten. They succeeded. The 
experiment is successful; and thousands have won thek 
deathless names in making it so. 

It may be observed that the argument concerning the mainte- 
nance of the government applies with equal force to its estab- 
lishment, although this is not said explicitly at this point. What 
ambition is here said to aspire to applies to the entire work of 
the generation of the Founding Fathers and most especially to 
the Fathers themselves. And now we are confronted with another 


of those rhetorical reversals which, like the earlier justification 
of lynchings by "abstract" and "correct" reasoning, although it 
barely ripples the flow of conventional sentiments upon the 
surface, shows a startling detachment not far below. And in this 
case our shock may prove a good deal more severe. For there 
appears to be a systematic process of detraction of the Fathers 
that borders upon the savage. Their heroic deeds, deeds whose 
heroism no one celebrated more resoundingly than Lincoln 
himself, we are here told, are "not much to be wondered at." 
Their work was not nearly so difficult as it has been supposed, 
because it had "many props to support it" then. A little later 
on Lincoln elaborates this theme as follows: 

By this ("the powerful influence which the interesting scenes 
of the revolution had upon the passions of the people as 
distinguished from their judgment") the jealousy, envy, and 
avarice, incident to our nature . . . were, for the time, in a 
great measure smothered and rendered inactive; while the 
deep-rooted principles of hate, and the powerful motive of 
revenge, instead of being turned against each other, were 
directed exclusively against the British nation. And thus, 
from the force of circumstances, the basest principles of our 
nature were either made to lie dormant, or to become the 
active agents in the advancement of the noblest causethat 
of establishing and maintaining civil and religious liberty. 

That the Fathers were in a position to employ and did employ 
"the basest principles of our nature" for the "noblest cause," while 
it may detract somewhat from the magnitude of their accomplish- 
ment and is a reflection upon the people they led, is no moral 
reflection upon them. But such reflections are not long to be sup- 
pressed. Lincoln echoes Hamilton, in the seventy-second Fed- 
eralist, who spoke of "love of fame, the ruling passion [the precise 
expression used later by Lincoln] of the noblest minds." However, 
Lincoln questions the nobility of those who have fame as a ruling 
passion, because the beneficence of passion, as such, cannot be 
taken for granted. We shall see Lincoln develop the thesis that 
love of fame is, in itself, morally neutral, that it was once the 
friend of the "noblest cause" purely because of circumstances, and 
that, equally because of circumstances, it is now the enemy of 
that same cause. The fame of individuals (as distinct from that of 
nations), which is here considered, is essentially a private good, 


conceived as being enjoyed by those whose names are immortal- 
ized. This private good was, as noted, not only compatible with 
the public good in the lifetime of the Fathers but absolutely 
required it then. But whether the Fathers sought the good for 
the sake of fame, or fame for the sake of the good, we cannot 
say. Hence we cannot say that they were virtuous men. Yet this 
is not all. Lincoln said at the beginning of the speech that the 
Fathers were "hardy, brave, and patriotic," that they performed 
their task "nobly." But one does not think of noble deeds as being 
undertaken solely or mainly for the doers' own benefit Yet here 
he attributes to them no motive other than "celebrity, fame, and 
distinction." This was to be gained by "success," upon which their 
"alT was staked and with which their destiny was "inseparably" 
linked (Lincoln's italics). According to this eschatology, success 
gains the heaven of praise and immortality and failure the hell 
of execration and oblivion. Let us compare this notion of reward 
and punishment with the ending of the Sub-Treasury speech, 
December 26, 1839: Thinking of what might give his soul a 
dignity "not wholly unworthy of its Almighty Architect," Lincoln 
pictures himself defending his country's cause alone. He there- 
upon swears, "Without contemplating consequences . . . eternal 
fidelity to the just cause. Let none falter," he continues in accents 
that were to resound in 1858 and 1860, "who thinks he is right, 
and we may succeed. But," he concludes, "if after all, we shall 
fail, be it so. We still shall have the proud consolation of saying 
to our consciences, and to the departed shade of our country's 
freedom, that the cause approved of our judgment, and adored 
of our hearts . . . we never faltered in defending." In the 1839 
speech Lincoln says that the choice of a cause of ends as distinct 
from means is made by a soul worthy of its eternal artificer, 
without regard to consequences; i.e., without regard to the 
chances of success or failure. In the eternity from which the soul 
emanates, success or failure has nothing to do with reputation 
in this world. For such a soul there is a different seat of judgment 
than that of the highly unstable source of reputations which allots 
political fame. In the 1838 speech he contrasts the passions of 
the people with their judgment; he shows that the passions of 
people and leaders supported the popular cause, but he does 
not say that the judgment of the leaders, any more than that of 
the people, supported that cause. This contrast does not suggest 
any intimation in the 1838 speech that the leaders of the Revolu- 


tion had that dignity which in 1839 ^e claims for himself, of hav- 
ing first submitted his cause to the judgment seat of conscience, 
of an unseen but all-seeing judge, without whose approval all 
other approval is valueless and in the light of whose approval all 
condemnation is but vindication. Finally, in the 1839 speech Lin- 
coln says that the just cause must be adored in the heart. Here 
alone is a passion which is good in itself because it is, by definition, 
a passion caused by what is good in itself; it is a passion which 
expresses itself not in self-reflecting contemplation but in the 
self-abnegation of adoration. It is the soul's link, as the invocation 
of the 1839 peroration shows, not with the spurious immortality 
of human opinions, but with eternity. Such a passion, while it 
compels men to hold political fame in contempt, alone makes 
them worthy of the greatest fame. Of such judgment, passion, 
and dignity in the Fathers, Lincoln gives no hint in the Lyceum 
speech. While he positively asserts nothing incompatible with 
such higher dignity, he more than suggests that we ought not 
to give them the benefit of doubt. For does he not say, almost 
in the same breath, that while they aspired to be admired by 
the world i.e., wondered af their success is not much to be 
wondered at? 

There is still further irony in the fact that Lincoln attributes 
the demonstration of the proposition that the people are capable 
of governing themselves not to the people but to those relatively 
small numbers who aspire to fame. It is true that Lincoln here 
speaks of "thousands" winning "deathless names/' which would 
probably include all the local heroes in the far-flung regions in 
which the Revolutionary struggles took place. Yet as the passage 
continues Lincoln reveals that his true subject is not the glory 
shared by thousands for, as Hobbes says, "glory is like honor, if 
all men have it, no man hath it" but the distinction which brooks 
no equality, no rivalry. As we shall see, Lincoln was quite con- 
vinced that the decisive factor in the great political equations 
is "towering genius" of the caliber of Washington and Jefferson 
or of Caesar and Napoleon. It is they, above all, who demonstrate 
the capacity or incapacity of "the people" to govern themselves. 
Yet Lincoln here tells us that the people led by Washington 
co-operated with him in very large measure because of "the basest 
principles of our nature," while Washington himself may have 
been animated primarily by the hope of a personal gain, a gain 
which he neither shared with anyone else nor which could be 


regarded as a result of the processes of popular government. Thus 
he may have had little love for or interest in popular government, 
except as it was incidentally necessary to his own fame. In short, 
Lincoln tells us there is no real reason to suppose that "our 
fathers," whether as leaders or followers, were sincerely devoted 
to the cause they have bequeathed to usl If the true test of self- 
government is a test of the ability of reason to control passion, a 
test of the fidelity of a people and their chosen leaders to the 
rights entrusted to them by the nature of popular government, 
then there is no reason to believe that such a test has yet occurred. 
The capability of a people to govern itself has not yet been 

How are we to interpret these amazing and dramatic reversals 
of what have always seemed to be Lincoln's deepest convictions, 
as well as the explicit theses of this very speech? Provisionally 
we would make these suggestions. First, the reversals occur only 
upon analysis, and the surface of the speech does not disturb 
the conventional picture of the heroic character of the Revolution. 
Second, throughout these central passages, which we have not 
yet followed to their end, Lincoln warns against the danger now 
of overweening ambition, of the ambition of the man who cannot 
bear to share a place in glory's sun, who would build if he can 
but tear down if he must. But before Lincoln's warning is made 
fully explicit, he gives a demonstration more convincing than any 
mere exhortation to beware of the ambitious man. He enacts the 
role of such a man before our eyes, showing how the board of 
honor might be swept clean by one whose talent and audacity 
might crop the honors on the crest even of a Washington to make 
a garland for his own head. Yet does Lincoln not, at the same 
time, indicate still more how vain is mere political reputation? 
Does he not show (Horn soit qui mal y pense] that malicious 
speculation upon the motives of men can sully the fame of the 
clearest judgments and the most disinterested hearts, that the ex- 
trinsic good of fame is only the lure or bait that wise men use to 
lead great souls in their formative years to taste the good that is 
intrinsically rewarding and which supersedes and displaces the 
appetite for fame? In the long run, we may even conclude, those 
who have chosen the intrinsically just cause, the cause approved 
of their judgment and adored in their hearts, will be recognized 
and hailed by those other men, of whatever time or place, who 
succeed them in the pilgrimage to the temple of liberty. It is 


the contemplation of such approbation which alone can truly 
gratify the highest human type. 

The passage of the Lyceum speech describing the "success" 
of the experiment of self-government continues thus: 

But the game is caught; and I believe it is true, that with 
the catching, end the pleasures of the chase. This field of 
glory is harvested, and the crop is akeady appropriated. But 
new reapers will arise, and they, too, will seek a field. It is 
to deny, what the history of the world tells us is true, to 
suppose that men of ambition and talents will not continue 
to spring up amongst us. And, when they do, they will as 
naturally seek the gratification of their ruling passion, as 
others have so done before them. The question then is, can 
that gratification be found in supporting and maintaining an 
edifice that has been erected by others? Most certainly it 
cannot. Many great and good men sufficiently qualified for 
any task they undertake, may ever be found, whose ambition 
would aspire to nothing beyond a seat in Congress, a guber- 
natorial or a presidential chair; but such belong not to the 
family of the lion, or the tribe of the eagle. WhatI think you 
these places would satisfy an Alexander, a Caesar, or a 
Napoleon? Neverl Towering genius disdains a beaten path. 
It seeks regions hitherto unexplored. It sees no distinction 
in adding story to story, upon the monuments of fame, 
erected to the memory of others. It denies that it is glory 
enough to serve under any chief. It scorns to tread in the 
footsteps of any predecessor, however illustrious. It thirsts 
and burns for distinction; and, if possible, it will have it, 
whether at the expense of emancipating slaves, or enslaving 
freemen. Is it unreasonable then to expect, that some man 
possessed of the loftiest genius, coupled with ambition suffi- 
cient to push it to its utmost stretch, will at some time, spring 
up among us? And when such a one does, it will require the 
people to be united with each other, attached to the govern- 
ment and laws, and generally intelligent, to successfully 
frustrate his designs. 

Distinction will be his paramount object, and although he 
would as willingly, perhaps more so, acquire it by doing good 
as harm; yet, that opportunity being past, and nothing left 


to be done in the way of building up, he would set boldly 
to the task of pulling down. 

Here then, is a probable case, highly dangerous, and such 
a one as could not have well existed heretofore. 

At the point at which Lincoln prepares his question, as to whether 
the men of heroic mold can find gratification within the framework 
of institutions erected by others, Edmund Wilson, in the essay 
referred to above, interjects the following comment: "You may 
think that the young Lincoln is about to exhort his auditors to 
follow the example of their fathers, not to rest on the performance 
of the past but to go on to new labors of patriotism, but the 
speech takes an unexpected turn ... He has been, it seems, 
preparing to deliver a warning." 11 The speech does take an 
unexpected turn, but the warning is its least unexpected and 
certainly its least unorthodox aspect. For in these sentences we 
find the future author of the Gettysburg Address denying, in a 
wholly relevant sense, that all men are created equal! 

Let us first be clear as to the meaning of the famous proposition. 
Although it has given rise to countless differing interpretations, 
yet does it not indisputably mean that the government of man 
by man, unlike the government of beasts by man, is not founded 
in any natural difference between rulers and ruled? Any man 
is by nature the ruler ( actual or potential ) of any dog, for example. 
As Jefferson was fond of saying, and Lincoln sometimes echoed, 
some men are not born with saddles on their backs to be ridden 
and others with spurs to ride them. The government of man over 
other species is rooted in a natural difference, but political 
government cannot be traced to any such difference. The govern- 
ment of men may be based upon force or fraud, in which case it 
is illegitimate, or it may be based upon consent. Such is assuredly 
the irreducible meaning of the Declaration of Independence, and 
no one has ever been more sensitive to it or to all the changes 
that could be rung upon it than Lincoln. Yet Lincoln here tells 
us that there are men whose genius for and will to domination 
virtually makes them a species apart. They belong to "the family 
of the lion and the tribe of the eagle." Even as it is natural and 
rational for men who are equal to seek in consent the basis of 
political rule, so is it natural (and rational) for men who are 
surpassingly superior to seek in the unfettered acknowledgment 
of their superiority the basis of such rule. Such men, therefore, 


are the born enemies of any political institutions which they are 
not by law destined to rule, but most especially are they the 
enemies of republics, as is implied in the examples Lincoln gives 
of the world's most famous destroyers of republics. Lincoln does 
not even entertain the possibility of taming or accommodating 
such natures, or "rehabilitating" them, in the modern parlance. 
What he says is far more suggestive of ancient than modern 
thinking. For example, there is the following passage from Plato's 
dialogue Gorgias, spoken by a character named Callicles, who is 
a follower of the teacher of oratory for whom the dialogue is 
named and who holds the view Lincoln appears to attribute to 
the Caesar-type: 

. . . the makers of laws are the majority, who are weak; and 
they make laws and distribute praises and censures with a 
view to themselves and to their own interests; and they terrify 
the stronger sort of men, and those who are able to get the 
better of them, in order that they may not get the better 
of them; and they say, that dishonesty is shameful and 
unjust; meaning, by the word injustice, the desire of a man 
to have more than his neighbors; for knowing their own 
inferiority, I suspect they are too glad of equality . . . whereas 
nature herself intimates that it is just for the better to have 
more than the worse, die more powerful than the weaker 
. . . Nay but these are the men [i.e., tyrants and conquerors] 
who act according to nature; yes, by Zeus, and according 
to the law of nature: not, perhaps, according to that artificial 
law, which we invent and impose upon our fellows, of whom 
we take the best and strongest from their youth upwards, 
and tame them like young lions,charming them with the 
sound of the voice, and saying to them, that with equality 
they must be content, and that the equal is honorable and 
just. But if there were a man with sufficient force, he would 
shake and break through, and escape from all this; he would 
trample under foot all our formulas and spells and charms, 
and all our laws which are against nature: the slave would 
rise in rebellion and be lord over us, and the light of natural 
justice would shine forth. 12 

According to Callicles, a government founded upon a doctrine 
of equal human rights is a lie, a myth imposed upon the stronger 
by the weaker, in order to deprive them of the just share to 


which they would be entitled by their strength. Callicles also, 
like Lincoln, distinguishes between the stronger natures who may 
be satisfied by the conventional honors bestowed by the weaker, 
on the basis of their morality of weakness, who might be 
"charmed" with a presidential chair, and those true 'lions," the 
Ubermenschen, whose strength includes the intellectual penetra- 
tion of the spurious quality of such pleasures and the consequent 
refusal to accept them. Such men will not accept the highest 
honor in the gift of a society of equals because they cannot 
indeed honestly cannot acknowledge a right in their inferiors to 
grant as a gift what they have a leonine right to claim as their own. 
To speak of these men as immoral is a mistake, for they do not 
recognize any obligation to what is commonly called morality. 
All such obligations are predicated upon an equality whose truth 
they deny. If their superiority is real, as Lincoln no less than 
Callicles appears to affirm, then morality must in fact consist in 
whatever vindicates their superiority. The Declaration of Inde- 
pendence affirms the natural equality of men and conceives 
political obligation in the light of that equality. But by equal 
reason obligation must correspond to inequality if men are as 
naturally unequal as they are here asserted to be. Now we are 
confronted with the most acute problem of the Lyceum Address: 
Did Lincoln seriously believe in the existence of men so superior 
that their submission to "equal" men was a violation of natural 
right? Is there not a strong presumption in favor of an affirmative 
answer to this question in the fact that Lincoln does not, in his 
warning against this alleged type, propose any alternative gratifi- 
cation for that ruling passion which he foresees engendered by 
Caesarian natures? He says that the true Caesarian, who will 
assuredly arise, "would as willingly, perhaps more so/' do good 
as evil. But Lincoln does not, as we might expect, propose any 
good for him to do. If, in fact, no good exists which is both 
adequate to the fulfillment of his nature and consistent with 
republican freedom, then it would follow that republican freedom 
cannot long endure. It cannot because it is in a decisive sense 
against nature, because it is in a decisive sense unjust. We must 
then inquire, above all, whether Lincoln does not show us, in 
the perpetuation of a republic based upon equal rights, a task 
equal to or surpassing in glory what future Caesars might find 
in the ruins of a republic. 
We have previously noted Edmund Wilson's observation that 


Lincoln described his heroic destroyer "with a fire that seemed 
to derive as much from admiration as apprehension." May this 
not be due in part to the fact that the vision of a man who, by 
force of his own qualities, seizes what is rightfully his own is 
always admirable? Is this additional evidence that Lincoln really 
accepted the truth of the proposition that some men are by nature 
the rulers of others? Before attempting an answer we would 
produce another ancient parallel to this passage in the Lyceum 
speech from Aristotle's Politics: 

If ... there be some one person, or more than one, al- 
though not enough to make up the full complement of a 
state, whose virtue is so pre-eminent that the virtues or 
political capacity of all the rest admit of no comparison with 
his or theirs, he or they can be no longer regarded as part 
of a state; for justice will not be done to the superior, if he is 
reckoned only as the equal of those who are so far inferior 
to him in virtue and in political capacity. Such a one may 
truly be deemed a god among men. Hence we see that 
legislation is necessarily concerned only with those who are 
equal in birth and capacity; and that for men of pre-eminent 
virtue there is no law they are themselves a law. Anyone 
would be ridiculous who attempted to make laws for them: 
they would probably retort what, in the fable of Antisthenes, 
the lions said to the hares, when in the council of the beasts 
the latter began haranguing and claiming equality for all 
(*Where are your claws and teeth?!'). And for this reason 
democratic states have instituted ostracism; equality is above 
all things their aim, and therefore they ostracised and ban- 
ished from the city for a time those who seemed to pre- 
dominate too much . . , 18 

In his comment on Lincoln's ambiguous attitude toward his 
dangerous hero Wilson also says "it is evident that Lincoln has 
projected himself into the role against which he is warning . . ." 
We believe this is true, in the sense that Lincoln envisioned him- 
self playing the highest political role. But we do not believe he 
envisioned himself as the destroyer, except in so far as every 
true strategist imagines himself in the position of his enemy. The 
warning against Caesar is sincere, and its sincerity is rooted in 
Lincoln's conception, in the same sense as Aristotle's, of a political 
role transcending that of Caesar and opposed to Caesar. The 


guarantee of his sincerity is his conviction that the man who can 
play such a role possesses a ruling passion of greater magnitude 
and may achieve greater glory than Caesar. There is evidence 
of such a role in Lincoln's simple exhortation to the people to 
remain united, faithful to the government and laws, and watchful 
against the destroyer. Yet this advice in itself is purely perfunc- 
tory. It is not for the people, but for their leaders, to penetrate 
the disguises in which their enemies come. Lincoln knew that both 
Caesar and Napoleon had overthrown republics by posing as their 
defenders, preserving republican forms until there was no power 
in the republics to resist them. 

You all did see, that on the Lupercall, 
I thrice presented him a kingly crown, 
Which he did thrice refuse. Was this ambition? 

Anthony's rhetorical question may be answered as the crowd 
answered it, but we know that Anthony himself answered it dif- 
ferently. But the antithesis to Caesar is not, as Mr. Wilson appears 
to suppose, Brutus. For Brutusat least Shakespeare's Brutus 
although a man of purest intentions, was a guileless bungler. It 
was Cassius who possessed the wisdom of the serpent, who would 
have murdered Anthony instead of allowing him to speak at 
Caesar's funeral. The man who would be a match for Caesar must 
somehow combine the virtues and political capacity of which 
Aristotle speaks; he must somehow unite, in his single person, the 
goodness of Brutus and the wiliness of Cassius. 14 Because these 
qualities were divided in Caesar's enemies they were impotent 
against Caesar, who was mightier in death, as Brutus found at 
Philippi, than in life. The conspiracy ended in civil war and the 
destruction of the conspirators, but the regime founded by Caesar 
was re-established more firmly than ever. 

It is the Calliclean thesis that the passion for domination of the 
natural ruler cannot brook submission to a regime of equal rights. 
But the Calliclean thesis is not pushed far enough by its advocates. 
For the passion it celebrates cannot be gratified by victory over 
the weaker, for whom the strong man has such contempt. Callicles 
demonstrates the contempt that the strong man has for the 
opinions of the weak, as represented by their opinions of justice. 
But what of the Caesarian reputation, which is founded in the 
adulation of these selfsame weaklings? 


And then he offered ft the third time; he put it the third 
time by, and still he refus'd it, the rabblement shouted, and 
clapp'd their chopp'd hands, and threw up their sweaty night 
caps, and uttered such a deal of stinking breath, because 
Caesar refus'd the crown, that ft had almost chok'd Cae- 
sar ... 

Does not a really strong man despise glory founded in such praise 
or in any praise founded in the mental, moral, or physical 
infirmity of those who give it? A Harry Monmouth seeks out a 
Harry Percy upon the field of Shrewsbury. The measure of a lion 
or eagle can be taken only against other lions or eagles; the victor 
in such a contest compels admiration whether he seeks it or not. 
Callicles and Aristotle agree in the doctrine that the man of 
superlative virtue is not subject to the laws of "equals" i.e., of 
inferiors but that he is a law unto himself. But Callicles again 
fails to take the measure of his own thesis by assuming a 
qualitative similarity in the superior and inferior men, believing 
that the superior have the same pleasures as the inferior and differ 
only in their ability to gratify themselves. This is the same fallacy 
which Lincoln imputes both to the Fathers and to the Caesar type; 
it may also have been the fallacy of Hamilton when he said that 
love of fame was the ruling passion of the noblest minds. Lincoln, 
like Aristotle (and Plato), holds that the fame achievable by po- 
litical success is the greatest good from the popular point of view, 
but it is not absolutely the greatest good. The folly of placing 
the highest human aspiration in political immortality Lincoln has 
subtly demonstrated by showing how the most apparently secure 
of all fame, that of the Fathers, might be annihilated. As the pero- 
ration of the Sub-Treasury speech indicated, there must then be 
a good beyond political fame, which replaces the appetite for 
fame, in the highest human type. But the appetite for this higher 
good makes the highest type man self -controlled with respect to 
all those appetites which the law forbids us to indulge, except in 
a moderate or "equal" fashion. Just as the athlete who has a con- 
suming passion for victory in an Olympic game forgoes of his own 
will many of the pleasures of other men, so this highest type man 
is controlled by his passion for a greater good. He is, as Aristotle 
says, above the law, because there is that in him which more than 
fulfills the law's requirements without either fear of the law's 
punishments or desire of the law's rewards. Such a man, Aristotle 


says, is like a god as compared to other men. This assertion has 
a very precise meaning. When we see the would-be Olympic 
victor abjuring the pleasures of other men, we do not, in any pro- 
found sense, wonder at his self-denial. Neither do we wonder at 
the honesty of the banker, the piety of the preacher, or the 
affability of the politician. Wonder is the offspring of mystery, and 
these instances present no mystery. The Roman mob was struck 
with amazement when Caesar thrice put by the kingly crown, be- 
cause it could not comprehend how a man who might have had 
a crown should deny it to himself. Yet it was not in the least 
wonderful to Casca, who knew perfectly well why Caesar had 
refused it. Within the political horizon, political success, above all 
that "immortality" conferred by the highest political success, 
which preserves a man's memory in honor "to the latest genera- 
tion," appears as the ruling passion of the noblest minds. But for 
a man to have such glory within his grasp and yet not to seize it 
must appear supremely wonderful to those whose vision is 
bounded by the political horizon. What greater good can there 
be to which this might be subordinated? To those who regard 
the political good as the highest good, anyone who can act as if 
there is a greater good must be more than a man. In this sense 
he must be a god. Lincoln's conception of the highest political 
role fits the Aristotelian conception of the man of godlike virtue. 
For the antithesis to the Caesarian destroyer of republics is, as 
we have maintained, one who is greater than Caesar, who is, 
therefore, the savior of republics. Political salvation, it would 
appear, like the salvation of the individual soul, cannot be 
achieved without superhuman or divine virtue. 

The man of godlike virtue, said Aristotle, is no proper part of 
a political community. This is true because, as we have just ob- 
served, the law which is rooted in the requirement to check the 
grasping passions of men, to enable them to live peaceably to- 
gether, has nothing to control in him. But further: such a man 
is said also to possess Caesarian power, to be able to overthrow 
the law; and even though he does not do so, the fact of his ability 
means that there is no element of submission in his attitude 
toward the law. The laws are not for him, yet there is no tension 
between the requirements of his well-being and the continued 
existence of the law for the simple reason that he has no desire 
for those things with respect to which the law lays constraints. 


But why should his attitude not be that of indifference instead 
of that of the protector? In one of Lincoln's great wartime 
utterances the true statesman is likened to a shepherd protecting 
his flock. He differs from the wolf, not because he is inferior in 
power to injure the sheep, but because he chooses to protect them. 
But why does the shepherd abstain from inflicting injury? Is he 
not merely a disguised wolf, who will eventually sacrifice the 
sheep to his own gain even more thoroughly than the wolf? 
Lincoln's answer to this, it is plain, is that the figure of the shep- 
herd is only a similitude under which the human mind conceives 
of the divine nature. Lincoln's shepherd is like the shepherd of 
David's psalms and Isaiah's prophecies. 15 When the sheep see the 
shepherd slay the wolf, their adulation is not founded only in 
self-interest; it is genuine admiration of the shepherd's strength. 
But the cause of this admiration, the sense of wonder at the shep- 
herd's might, comes not only from the sense of his strength. The 
strength of the wolf inspires terror, yet there is nothing wonderful 
about it because it is joined to the wolf's predatory nature. Indeed, 
if the sheep are, as Callicles suggests, themselves entirely selfish, 
the gentleness of the shepherd would be all the more incompre- 
hensible. It is the contrast between the shepherd's gentleness and 
his strength, and the mystery of why he denies himself "human" 
i.e., selfish gratification, that arouses wonder. It is this imitatio 
Dei which creates a glory exceeding anything awarded for politi- 
cal success. Such a glory may, in fact, exceed any merely political 
glory, even on the political level. Yet it is understood that the 
actual achievement of such glory is incidental or accidental; the 
political savior is capable of being the savior only because he has 
no wish to see the thing he can save endangered. The Lord had 
no wish to see man sin; the divine nature offered man salvation 
nonetheless; yet it is inconceivable, or at least inconsistent with 
the idea of the divine nature, that God needed glorification as 
man needed salvation. Lincoln had a corresponding conception of 
the nature of the true statesman in the highest sense. He alone 
can save his country who can forgo the honors of his countrymen. 
Like Aristotle's great-souled man, described in the Nicomachean 
Ethics, he alone is worthy of the highest honor who holds honor 
itself in contempt, who prefers even to the voice of his country- 
men the approving voice heard only by himself, "Well done, 
thou good and faithful servant." That the question of the measure 


of the man who might live up to this standard was involved in 
Lincoln's mind from the beginning to the end of his contest with 
Douglas is shown by Lincoln's last speech in the 1858 campaign: 

Ambition has been ascribed to me. God knows how sincerely 
I prayed from the first that this field of ambition might not 
be opened. I claim no insensibility to political honors; but 
today could the Missouri restriction be restored, and the 
whole slavery question replaced on the old ground of "tolera- 
tion" by necessity where it exists, with unyielding hostility 
to the spread of it, on principle, I would, in consideration, 
gladly agree, that Judge Douglas should never be out, and I 
never in, an office, so long as we both or either, live. 18 

There is in this passage something of a suggestion that there is 
no place in democratic politics for the man who would act only 
on the grand scale, in the great crises. Such a suggestion is, of 
course, belied by Lincoln's life and by his obvious relish for the 
ways, low as well as high, of the politician. Yet there is a sense 
in which Lincoln's career bears out this aristocratic interpretation. 
For Lincoln, like Aristotle's great-souled man, who is a man of 
few but great actions, seems to have concentrated his whole inner 
life upon preparing for the crisis foretold in the Lyceum speech. 
Lincoln, unlike Douglas, found himself unable to play anything 
but a minor political role throughout the agitation caused by the 
Wilmot Proviso. And he accepted the leadership of Clay and of 
Douglas himself as Whigs and Democrats joined hands in the 
Compromise of i8so. 17 The arts that he learned in his political 
apprenticeship were not learned for the sake of moving the state 
capital from Vandalia to Springfield, Senator Beveridge to the 
contrary notwithstanding. When Woodrow Wilson said that 
the phenomenon of Lincoln had made it possible to believe in 
democracy, he implied that great moral restraint was traditionally 
associated with aristocratic virtue and had always seemed particu- 
larly incompatible with deference to popular opinion. It was 
Lincoln's task to demonstrate how magnanimity might find its 
lodgment with the cause of the people. 

There is yet another sense in which the man of surpassing merit 
is not part of a political community, in which sense also Lincoln 
is in agreement with Aristotle. Let us think first of the role of 
the founder as distinct from that of the savior. It is the task of 
a Moses, a Lycurgus, a Romulus, or a Washington to give an 


impress to the political order he founds, even as the sculptor gives 
form to the statue. To do so implies, as in the case of the artisan, 
a separation and detachment of the worker from his work. The 
founder, qua founder, is then never a part of the order he founds. 
In a somewhat different sense this is true of the entire founding 
(or Revolutionary) generation. They are not bred under the law 
of the republic they help to found; they are never so thoroughly 
molded by it in their inner beings as those who come after them. 
This relationship, we should observe, is also indicated in the story 
of Exodus by the fact that those whom Moses led out of Egypt, 
like Moses himself, were not permitted to enter the Promised 
Land. Only their children, bred under Mosaic law, entered it. Lin- 
coln's argument in the Lyceum speech parallels the Bible, in that 
he imputes to the Revolutionary generation, in particular the 
leaders, passionate personal motives for attachment to the new 
order, motives which betoken inferiority to the attachment which 
is habitual and which flows from a character disposed from within 
to choose rightly, without any supervening direction by the pas- 
sions. Hatred of the Egyptians led to independence, but not 
hatred of Egypt, but love of Israel, must perpetuate Israel. Love 
of Israel must come from reverence of the Law, from those bred 
by the Law, in whom the Law has been implanted from birth 
and grown with their growth. 

And yet there is another viewpoint, from which posterity is in- 
ferior to the founding generation. When Lincoln states the case 
against the Fathers, by maintaining that the passion for "fame, 
celebrity, and distinction" gave adventitious support to their 
cause, he was deliberately shaping the argument to focus atten- 
tion upon the Caesarian destroyer. But the "detachment" of the 
Founders may certainly be viewed in a more inspiring light. They 
were compelled to take great risks for their cause, as Lincoln 
indicates. But while it is true that, as he says, their destinies were 
inseparably linked with the maintenance of republican institu- 
tions, they were not linked with their establishment except by 
their own deliberate choice. They incurred the risks by choosing 
their cause. Washington and Jefferson might have stood high in 
the service of King George III, as Moses might have continued 
to do in the service of Pharaoh. The detachment of the Founders 
enables them to see the republic in a light in which it does not 
appear to posterity. Those bred by the law are bred to affirm 
republican principles, not as a matter of deliberative choice, but 


spontaneously, as an immediate consequence of their republican 
natures. But the founder must reject much of what he has been 
bred to believe. He sees the republic as an alternative, and his 
affirmation is a triumph of the republican cause over all the 
alternatives he rejects. Moreover, the glory of Washington, for ex- 
ample, like that of Moses, is that of a founder of an order which 
holds out a unique promise of good to the entire family of man, 
a good which mankind has always desired but has never known 
to be possible. All the weary experience of the past is against 
such men; the boundlessness of die infamy which surrounds the 
prospect of failure on their lonely pinnacles of largely unshared 
responsibility is unimaginably terrible. They do not have the com- 
forting assurances of communal conviction because the com- 
munity which would shelter their assurance exists only in their 
own vision of the future. Meanwhile they must bear the re- 
proaches of those who yearn for the fleshpots of Egypt or watch 
the summer soldiers depart as winter closes over Valley Forge. 
Such a founder comprehends the affirmation of his decision in all 
its terror, majesty, and solitude. He thus estimates the value of 
the thing to which he would give life as perhaps no one again 
will estimate it. For such a man alone knows what it is to affirm 
its value while all the alternatives he has rejected crowd around 
him, beckoning him from the uncharted voyage to the easier, 
safer, and conventional paths. 

Let us consider the consequences of the foregoing reflections as 
they bear upon the nature and role of the would-be preserver. 
The principal danger to the republic comes, according to Lincoln, 
from the Caesarian type. Men of this type are of the same order 
of genius as the Founders, in that they too do not savor what 
they deem to be conventional pleasures. Although bred by the 
law, they do not see it as other citizens do; they shake off their 
loyalty as if it were a dream or mirage and see it as the Founders 
did, as an alternativeand an opportunity. Yet in the last analysis 
Caesar is a victim of the delusion he thinks he has thrown off. 
For the ambition which he chooses to gratify, the ambition for 
fame, we have seen to be but a conventional pleasure trans- 
figured. But the antagonist of Caesar, no less than Caesar, must 
comprehend the republic as an alternative: an alternative to be 
chosen or to become the mere instrument of his own ambition. 
The sense in which the founder stands outside the order he 


founds is fairly obvious, but it is no less true that its preserver 
must stand outside it He too must know, nay, he must feel, all 
the reasons which might wrench him from his republican loyalty. 
The qualifications of a savior, whether of the individual soul or 
of the political soul of a free nation, require a temptation in the 
wilderness. The savior must know all the attractions of becoming 
the destroyer before he can become the savior. It is no accident 
that the Lyceum speech, whose highest theme is political salva- 
tion, ends by saying that the "proud fabric of freedom" may yet 
rest upon a "rock," and that if it does, "as truly as has been said of 
the only greater institution, 'the gates of hell shall not prevail 
against it/" 

Lincoln's deliberate invocation of the analogies with the New 
and Old Testaments indicates that the trials of the faith of the 
forefathers must be reduplicated by their subseqeunt political 
savior. And Lincoln has methodically indicated the nature of the 
trials by indicating the gravest grounds for the gravest doubts 
of the most sacred tenets of the citizens' creed: the moral and 
intellectual eminence of the Founding Fathers, the heroic char- 
acter of the Revolution, and, above all, the proposition that all 
men are created equal. Lincoln has shown that these things were 
not matters of unquestioning faith for him but subjects of extreme 
and anxious doubt. Yet Lincoln has not only indicated his doubts 
but his triumph over them. All men are created equal, because 
those who are really superior are in the decisive sense above 
humanity. For them to claim superior rights would be absurd, 
because such a claim would imply an appetite for those political 
goods for which they have no desire, "All men are created equal" 
remains the decisive political truth, because those who might with 
justice deny it have no motive to deny it, while those who do 
deny it can only do so because of an unjust motive. 

That the Founding Fathers were truly a heroic breed we have 
also suggested must have been Lincoln's serious final conviction. 
This may be stated decisively when we point out that Lincoln 
has really shown that the situation of the Founder is reproduced, 
in all its essentials, in the situation of the preserver. The passage 
on the Caesarian menace concluded by saying that this danger is 
one which could not have existed before. If this is true, then it 
follows that a unique task exists now, even as one existed in the 
revolutionary era. And since Lincoln correlates the opportunity for 
glory with uniqueness, the opportunity for glory still exists. But 


now we see that the passion which merits true glory is not a 
passion for glory. We understand that both founder and preserver 
must transcend mere ambition. The heroic character of the 
Fathers is re-established by the same considerations that point to 
the savior, as distinguished from the destroyer. 

Yet the task of the savior differs from, and is in crucial respects 
more noble because it is more difficult than, the task of the original 
Founders. It was no expression of a transient mood that led Lin- 
coln to say, as he left Springfield to take the nation's helm on 
February 11, 1861, that he went "with a task before me greater 
than that which rested upon Washington." The original founder 
leads a fight against avowed enemies of republican freedom in 
Washington's time against a largely alien foe. The Caesarian 
danger is an inner danger, arising mainly from the coincidence of 
vaulting ambition and mob violence. 18 But mob violence is pecul- 
iarly dangerous to popular government when it is as Lincoln 
clearly believed it was an expression of the impatience of the 
people, intoxicated with the idea that they are the source of all 
legitimate power. For intoxication with their own supremacy may 
lead to the conviction that the constitutional forms erected to se- 
cure their rights are barriers to their rights. The people, in short, 
tend to identify their rights with their passions and to oppose 
obstacles to their passions as if they were obstacles to their rights. 
The Caesarian danger comes when demagogues indulge the peo- 
ple in this very delusion. When those who thus flatter the people 
become masters of the government, then the forms of law may 
themselves become prostituted. Caesar may come into possession 
of the government by carefully observing legal requirements 
which he means to do away with when his control is secure. Thus 
may the substance of popular government, the security of individ- 
ual rights, be completely abolished in the name of the people and 
the rights of individuals. In his diagnosis of the Caesarian menace 
Lincoln is, among other things, expressing a Whig view of 
Jacksonian democracy. In our opinion Lincoln did not feel the 
repulsion toward Jackson that was official Whig dogma. We 
cannot, for example, believe that Lincoln ever shared the Whig 
view that Jackson had overextended the powers of the presidency. 
Douglas, far more than Jackson, embodied the menace implied 
in Jacksonianism. The celebration of "military glory-that attrac- 
tive rainbow that rises in showers of blood-that serpent's eye that 
charms to destroy/' as he said during the Mexican War, Lincoln 


did indeed fear greatly. Such glory, upon which Jackson certainly 
capitalized, intoxicated Jackson's followers far more than it 
did their chief and, among these, none more than Douglas. As 
we have amply seen, all Douglas's policies culminated in a 
Catonian cry for the destruction of British power in the New 
World. All the disruptive forces in American life would have been 
"pacified" by a gigantic crusade against Britain. Yet the message 
of the Lyceum speech is that such a policy as Douglas's would 
be in effect a confession of defeat for free popular government. 
In the passage in the Lyceum speech in which Lincoln says that 
the future destroyer will seek distinction "whether at the expense 
of emancipating slaves, or enslaving freemen," he is not thinking 
primarily, as Edmund Wilson supposes, of his own future role and 
the objections that might be made to it. He is thinking of the 
passions of the rival factions at Alton, Illinois, and of the politicians 
who would seek votes without regard to the intrinsic Tightness or 
wrongness of the methods or the goals of the men in the mobs. 
He is thinking, above all, of such a monstrosity as Douglas's 
popular sovereignty which was itself but a particular formulation 
of Jacksonian democracy and which "didn't care" whether slavery 
was voted up or voted down. The doctrine of popular sovereignty 
as preached by Douglas was of the essence of the Caesarian 
danger; it was a base parody of the principle of popular rights. 
It implied that whatever the people wanted they had a right to, 
instead of warning the people that the rights which they might 
assert against all the kings and princes of the old world were 
rights which they must first respect themselves. 

Thus we see that, for the republic to live, the act of creation 
or founding must be repeated. Indeed, we may go further and 
say that Lincoln's argument carried to its logical conclusion re- 
quires that the re-creation of the republic is something that may 
have to be accomplished at any time and that only as there are 
men of transcendent ability and virtue who, in the sense indi- 
cated, stand guard outside the community can those within it re- 
main in possession of their republican rights. The demonstration 
of the "people's" capacity to govern themselves is possible because 
of the Washingtons and Jeffersons of the first generation and 
because of such men as Lincoln fourscore and seven years after. 
The Caesarian danger may arise at any time; it is rooted in the 
strength of the passions of the people and in the evil genius of 
some men to offer the people the gratification of these passions 


in forms which are spuriously represented as legitimate exercises 
of the people's rights. But Caesar must be encountered by one 
who has all Caesar's talent for domination, one who could, if he 
would, govern the people without their consent, but who prefers 
the people's freedom to their domination. Such statesmanship is 
predicated upon the truth that Caesar is, in the last analysis, not 
the people's master but their fool. For his own ambition is but 
vulgar ambition transfigured; he is capable of enslaving the people 
only by first becoming enslaved to their desires. He overthrows 
republican self-government by leading the people to foreign con- 
quest, bread, and circuses. Those who would teach the people 
that they may not eat the bread others have earned, whether 
abroad or at home, have a much harder task. Yet they alone 
are true masters, they alone have enslaved the people to a noble 
enslavement the restraint of their own passions. The true ruler 
of men, with the highest of all ambitions, sees in the idea of equal- 
ity the principle which requires, both logically and politically, the 
highest degree of moral self-government. His own sense of su- 
periority can be vindicated only by the knowledge that he has 
been responsible whether by the shepherd's silent watchfulness 
or his stern and unrelenting encounter with the wolf for the re- 
straints which keep his flock in the paths of righteous endeavor. 

The work of the Founding Fathers was excellent and noble, 
but it was incomplete. Its incompleteness is no necessary reflec- 
tion upon the Fathers themselves. In asserting their independence 
of the British they could not help appealing to passions of revenge 
and hatred; nor could they, in appealing to the principle of equal 
rights, avoid setting in train passions which would resist both just 
and unjust restraints. The people must be taught, as Jefferson 
taught them, to assert their rights. But they had not yet learned 
to respect what they had asserted. The people had not yet learned 
to be submissive in the presence of their own dignity. That this is 
peculiarly difficult to learn is easy to see. Whoever sees the law 
as the product of his will-whether it be a Louis XIV or the 
American people is prone to think that all things are lawful. Yet 
however easy or inevitable the error, it is still an error. Whoever 
fulfills the law does not destroy the law. But that the people can 
destroy themselves, that they can be led by the Pied Piper of 


Caesarism to their own destruction, was Lincoln's profound con- 
viction. For the people to have the respect to which their rights 
entitle them they must be made subject to a discipline in virtue 
of which they will demand only those things in the name of their 
own supreme authority that are reasonable; i.e., consistent with 
the implications of their own equal rights. There is only one way 
in which this self-respect on the part of the people can, according 
to Lincoln, be achieved. The Lyceum speech is designed, as the 
whole idea of political salvation implies, to give force to the one 
practical proposal of the Lyceum speech; namely, the proposal for 
a "political religion." We have noted that the speech ends with a 
comparison of the American republic to the "only greater institu- 
tion," as we have earlier noted parallels of the Revolutionary 
generation to the Israelites led out of Egypt by Moses. We would 
now observe that Lincoln's political thought is cast almost wholly 
in the metaphor of a double perspective, in which the function 
of his statesmanship is seen either on the analogy of the salvation 
of Israel from Egypt or the salvation of the world by the Messiah. 
Lincoln's moral imagination worked in and through a kind of 
conflation of the symbols of Old and New Testaments. It is, for 
example, impossible to grasp fully what Lincoln believed he was 
doing in his debates with Douglas throughout the period of 
1854-60 without seeing it as a performance of a prophetic role in 
the Old Testament sense. Neither is it possible to understand his 
conception of his Civil War role without seeing the Messianic 
idea at work. In discussing "political religion" as presented in the 
Lyceum speech, we will go beyond the framework of the speech 
itself to show how it involved Lincoln's whole conception of po- 
litical salvation and of the role of statesmanship as necessarily 
agreeing in its higher reaches with the purposes and methods of 
the divine teacher. Because of the importance of its anticipations, 
we reproduce the following with all its rhetorical flourishes: 

Let every American, every lover of liberty, every well 
wisher to his posterity, swear by the blood of the Revolution, 
never to violate in the least particular, the laws of the 
country; and never to tolerate their violation by others. As 
the patriots of seventy-six did to the support of the Declara- 
tion of Independence, so to the support of the Constitution 
and Laws, let every American pledge his life, his property, 
and his sacred honor;let every man remember that to vio- 


late the law, is to trample on the blood of his father, and 
to tear the charter of his own, and his children's liberty. 
Let reverence for the laws, be breathed by every American 
mother, to the lisping babe, that prattles on her lap let it 
be taught in schools, in seminaries, and in colleges; let it be 
written in Primers, spelling books, and in Almanacs;-let it 
be preached from the pulpit, proclaimed in legislative halls, 
and enforced in courts of justice. And, in short, let it become 
the political religion of the nation; and let the old and the 
young, the rich and the poor, the grave and the gay, of all 
sexes and tongues, and colors and conditions, sacrifice unceas- 
ingly upon its altars. 

We cannot help noticing that here, unlike the Gettysburg 
Address, Lincoln calls only for dedication to the legal order, not, 
as we might have expected, to the Declaration and the Constitu- 
tion and laws. Yet in this difference we are reminded of the 
problem from which the Lyceum speech starts: the problem of 
disorder arising from base passions, passions set in motion by the 
Revolution and hence by the summons to independence. In fact, 
the difference between the Lyceum speech and the Gettysburg 
Address is more apparent than real. For the latter effects a subtle 
but profound change in the doctrine which it adapts (rather than 
adopts) from the Declaration of Independence. Throughout the 
period of the debates with Douglas, the "prophetic period" of his 
career, whose keynote was a return to ancestral ways, Lincoln 
constantly referred to the great central tenet as an "ancient faith." 
And so, in the Gettysburg Address, what was called a self-evident 
truth by Jefferson becomes in Lincoln's rhetoric an inheritance 
from "our fathers." This is not to suggest that Lincoln doubted 
the evidence for the proposition although we have seen that his 
assent was far more complicated than that of "the people" could 
well be but that he found its political efficacy, "four score and 
seven years" after, to reside more in the fact of its inheritance 
than in its accessibility to unassisted human reason. Lincoln trans- 
forms a truth open to each man as man into something he shares 
in virtue of his partnership in the nation. The truth which, in the 
Declaration, gave each man, as an individual, the right to judge 
the extent of his obligations to any community in the Gettysburg 
Address also imposes an overriding obligation to maintain the in- 
tegrity, moral and physical, of that community which is the bearer 


of the truth. The sacrifices both engendered and required by that 
truth for the lapses from the faith are, in a sense, due to the 
moral strain imposed by its loftiness transforms that nation 
dedicated to it from a merely rational and secular one, calculated 
to "secure these rights" i,e., the rights of individuals into some- 
thing whose value is beyond all calculation. The "people" is no 
longer conceived in the Gettysburg Address, as it is in the 
Declaration of Independence, as a contractual union of individuals 
existing in a present; it is as well a union with ancestors and 
with posterity; it is organic and sacramental. For the central 
metaphor of the Gettysburg Address is that of birth and rebirth. 
And to be born again, to Lincoln and his audience as to any 
audience reared in the tradition of a civilization shaped by the 
Bible and by Plato's Republic connoted the birth of the spirit as 
distinct from the flesh; it meant the birth resulting from the bap- 
tism or conversion of the soul. This new birth is not, as we have 
said, mere renewal of life but the origin of a higher life. Thus 
Lincoln, in the Civil War, above all in the Gettysburg Address 
and Second Inaugural, interpreted the war as a kind of blood 
price for the baptism of the soul of a people. 

When the opportunity came, Lincoln was prepared by long 
forethought to shape from the materials of the American tradition 
that political religion which in 1838 he had seen to be necessary 
for the perpetuation of our political institutions. He found in the 
experience of that people two pre-eminent obstacles, or antago- 
nisms, whose reconciliation it would be the essential task of that 
religion to effect. One was the antagonism between the American 
secular and religious traditions and the other the inner conflict, 
to which we have adverted, engendered in part by the Declaration 
of Independence itself, between the principles of popular govern- 
ment and the passions of the people. 

We may observe that American civilization was, in a high 
degree, formed by the conjunction of two main currents of thought 
and conviction. One was the Puritan religious tradition, the other 
the secular tradition known in the eighteenth century, and since, 
as the Enlightenment. Although accommodations on the popular 
and political level were increasingly made as the eighteenth cen- 
tury progressed (as in that laughable compromise between 
fidelity and infidelity known as Deism), these elements of 
American life were largely hostile to each other. The impact of 
the French Revolution on America tore away most of the veils of 


compromise and exacerbated enmities that had been superficially 
smoothed over. Although Jefferson could on occasion use religious 
language, he was the lifelong enemy of clerical influences, espe- 
cially those emanating from New England. While he repeatedly 
exhorted men to the ethic of Christianity as he understood ithe 
never concealed his detestation of the theology of its churches. 
Such doctrines as those of the Trinity, original sin, predestination, 
redemption through faith (not works), etc., he considered relics 
of man's barbaric past or sophistries spun by priests to bemuse 
men's minds and aid in their own seizure of power. Although 
Jefferson is the arch-apostle of religious freedom, there is no ques- 
tion but that he hoped and believed the effect of religious free- 
dom would be a withering away of credence in all, or nearly all, 
revealed theology. It is hardly an exaggeration to say that, for 
Jefferson, such an attrition of what he was pleased to call super- 
stition was essential if men were to claim their natural rights and 
republican freedom was to endure. The preamble to the Declara- 
tion of Independence invokes not the God of Israel or the persons 
of the Trinity but the God of Nature and is wholly a document 
of the rationalistic tradition. This God reveals himself, not in 
thunder from Sinai, nor through any gift of faith, inspiration, or 
private judgment upon sacred scriptures. He reveals himself 
through "self-evident" truths; i.e., through the unassisted natural 
processes of ratiocination. Lincoln, however, achieved, on the 
level of the moral imagination, a synthesis of the elements which 
in Jefferson remained antagonistic. He incorporated the truths of 
the Declaration of Independence into a sacred and ritual canon, 
making them objects of faith as well as of cognition. Through his 
interpretation of the Civil War as both a Hebraic and Christian 
ritual atonement, this canon was made sacred to the American 
people as the Declaration of Independence, of itself, could not 
be made. This interpretation did not depend for its conviction 
upon the intellectual acknowledgment of the truth alone an 
acknowledgment which, of itself, Lincoln in 1838 showed was a 
feeble barrier to the passions but upon a passionate and passion- 
conquering conviction born of the sense of the awful price ex- 
acted by that truth of its votaries. For the experience of the price 
paid for infidelity, but which measured the value of fidelity, might 
create a presumption in favor of the truths of the Declaration, 
which the evidence supplied by reason, apart from such experi- 
ence, could never create. 


Lincoln's conception of a political religion which would create 
"reverence for the laws" is first expressed in the Lyceum speech 
and is given fulfillment in the unsurpassed beauties of the 
Gettysburg Address. The 1863 speech tacitly obscures the rational 
foundations of the proposition to which it says the nation was 
dedicated. It associates the new birth of freedom with the idea 
of the release of the spirit from the bondage of sin, the idea with 
which the people were familiar from their ancient revealed reli- 
gion. By this very association Lincoln gave the idea of political 
freedom, which was so new to the Western world, a sense of the 
dignity which is naturally associated only with things that are old. 
The connection between venerability and stability is nowhere ex- 
pressed more brilliantly than in the forty-ninth number of the 
Federalist, which we may with profit reproduce in this context: 

If it be true that all governments rest upon opinion, it is 
no less true that the strength of opinion, in each individual, 
and its practical influence on his conduct, depend much on 
the number which he supposes to have entertained the same 
opinion. The reason of man, like man himself, is timid and 
cautious when left alone, and acquires firmness and confi- 
dence in proportion to the number with which it is associated. 
When the examples which fortify opinion are ancient as well 
as numerous, they are known to have a double effect. In a 
nation of philosophers, this consideration ought to be disre- 
garded. A reverence for the laws would be sufficiently 
inculcated by the voice of enlightened reason. But a nation 
of philosophers is as little to be expected as the philosophical 
race of kings wished for by Plato. And in every other nation, 
the most rational government will not find it a superfluous 
advantage to have the prejudices of the community on its 

The lapse of the American people from the faith of their fathers, 
like that of the people led by Moses, was a lapse from a truth 
immediately accessible. Neither the pillar of fire by night, and 
the cloud by day, nor the rational self -evidence of human equality, 
had the "practical influence" upon the conduct of one or the other 
which their missions required of them. The Jews were led out of 
Egypt in fulfillment of a promise gained not by their merits but 
by those of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. So, we have seen, were 
the American people foreordained to the blessings of a govern- 


ment of equal rights by the merits of the Founding Fathers. Yet, 
like the Jews who were still corrupt from their sojourn in Egypt, 
the American people were not worthy of their mission. By their 
infidelity they were destined to sufferings, sufferings from which 
they would gain that purity of heart and tenacity of conviction 
which neither miracle nor reason, of itself, seems able to implant. 

The necessity of a political religion has, as we have seen, 
particular meaning within the framework of Lincoln's analysis of 
the problem of free popular government. Over and again, in the 
debates with Douglas, Lincoln said that in a government like ours 
public sentiment is everything, determining what laws and de- 
cisions can or cannot be enforced. For here there is no monarch 
or ruling class with a will apart from that of the people. Thus 
self-control by the people is a particular necessity, and there is, 
accordingly, an especial need for that "double effect" spoken of 
in the forty-ninth Federalist, that "prejudice" in favor of moral 
restraint which comes from reverence for the laws. But reverence 
is a species of veneration, and veneration is for things venerable; 
i.e., old. A regard for ancient opinions is a peculiar necessity and 
a peculiar difficulty for free popular government. For such govern- 
ment is, as no one believed more passionately than Lincoln, 
founded in the proposition that all men are created equal, but 
that proposition implies an equality not only between individuals 
but between generations; it is, therefore, peculiarly subversive of 
reverence. The Declaration of Independence thus not only ex- 
presses the central truth upon which free government is based 
but undermines the possibility of reverence which alone can 
stabilize government founded upon that truth. As the forty-ninth 
Federalist says, such reverence would not be necessary were men 
able to be governed by the voice of enlightened reason alone. But 
the Federalist warns, as Lincoln warned, that it would be 
singularly unenlightened to depend upon that voice as the sole 
restraint upon popular passions. 

The tension between the truth and the reverence which that 
truth undermines is but another expression of the irreconcilability 
of passion and reason. We said before that Lincoln sought, in a 
political religion, the reconciliation of the hostile elements in the 
American secular and religious traditions. We might conveniently 
oversimplify that antagonism by saying that one element called 
for reverence without reason and the other reason without rever- 
ence. Yet neither was politically true or viable without the other. 


In Lincoln's republican theology this tension may be compared 
to original sin in the Christian tradition. The idea of political 
salvation, as expressed in the Lyceum speech in 1838, points, as 
we have observed, to the political savior. Clinton Rossiter, in his 
The American Presidency, well says that "Lincoln is the supreme 
myth, the richest symbol in the American experience. He is, as 
someone has remarked neither irreverently nor sacrilegiously, the 
martyred Christ of democracy's passion play/ 1 Many things in Lin- 
coln's life, like the accident of his death, may have been fortuitous 
or providential but the myth that came to lif e with his passing 
was neither. It was the finely wrought consummation, of philo- 
sophic insight and a poetic gift, of a Me devoted to the problem 
of "the capability of a people to govern themselves." 

Analysis of Lincoln's Temperance Address* 

A. Present Success of the Temperance Cause (1-18) 

I. Celebration of Present Success (1-2) 

II. Causes of Present Success: Contrast Between the Old and 
New Temperance Champions (3-18) 

a. Want of Approachability of Old-School Champions: 
Wrong Men (3-4) 

1. Their Want of Approachability 

a'. Because of Supposed Want of Sympathy 

b'. Because of Supposed Want of Disinterestedness 

2. The Washingtonians Contrasting: 

a'. Sympathy 

b'. Disinterestedness 

b. Unwisdom of Old-School Champions' Tactics: Wrong 
Measures (5-18) 

1. Unwisdom of Denunciation (5-16) 

a'. Its Impolicy (5-8) 
i'. Its Ineffectiveness 

a". Because Unsympathetic 
b". Because Necessarily Productive of An- 

2'. The Washingtonians Effectiveness 
b'. Its Injustice (9-16) 

i'. Drinking Sanctioned by Universal Public 
Opinion: Hence Not Unjust 
a". Evidence of This Opinion 
b' 7 . Interpretation of This Opinion 
c". Evaluation of This Opinion 
2'. Its Denunciation Inhumane: Hence Unjust 
a". Against the Grain of the Altruistic Pas- 
sions: Hence Base 

b". Against the Grain of the Egotistic Pas- 
sions: Hence Foolish 

2. Contrasting Wisdom of the Washingtonians (16-18) 

B. Causes of Future Success (19-24) 

I. The Missionary Work of Reformed Drunkards (19) 

II. The Co-operation of Non-Drinkers (20-24) 

a. Doubts of the Non-Drinkers As to Benefits of Their Co- 
operation (20-22) 
i. Doubt of the Benefit of Banishing Drink 


a'. The Doubt 

b'. Removal of Doubt: Testimony of "Universal" 


2, Doubts of Benefit from Non-Drinkers' Taking the 
a'. First Doubt 

i'. Emptiness of the Gesture 

2'. Doubt Removed: Moral Example Not an 

Empty Gesture 
b'. Second Doubt 

i'. Moral Example Ineffective 

2'. Doubt Removed: Moral Example Extremely 

Powerful When Fashionable 

b. Fear of the Non-Drinkers of Injury from Their Co- 
operation (23-24) 

1. Fear: That They Will Identify Themselves With 

2. Removal of Fear: 

a'. Argument from Christianity: In Taking Pledge, 
They Imitate Christ, Who Is Above Them, Not 
Drunks, Who Are Below Them 
b'. Argument from Reason and Experience: Drunk- 
ards As A Class Not Inferior, Hence No Danger 
of Demeaning Themselves 
C. Relation of Temperance Revolution to '76 (25-30) 

I. Comparison of the Two Revolutions As To Misery Inflicted 
and Relieved 

a. The Political Revolution 

1. Its Benefits (25) 

a'. Past and Present 

i'. Political Freedom Beyond Anything 

Achieved Elsewhere 
2'. Solved the Problem of Man's Capability to 

Govern Himself 

b'. Future: The Germ of the Universal Liberty of 

2. Its Cost: Famine, Death, and Desolation (26) 

b. The Moral Revolution (27) 

1. Its Benefit: Superiority of Moral to Political Free- 

2. Its Cost: "Widow's Wail" Compared with 'Universal 


Song of Gladness" 

II. Consequences of the Two Revolutions: Universal Reign 
of Reason (28) 

III. Glory of the Two Revolutions (29-30) 

a. For the Land That Will Be the Birthplace and Cradle 
of Both (29) 

b. For the Name of Washington (30) 

*Note: Numbers in parenthesis correspond to the paragraphs of the 
text as printed in the Sangamo Journal, March 25, 1842, and reprinted 
in Collected Works, I, pp. 271-79. The paragraphs are not numbered 
in the printed text. 

Chapter X 

The Teaching Concerning Political 

THE Lyceum speech contains a prognosis, twenty years before 
the house divided speech, of a crisis which must be reached and 
passed before the capability of a people to govern themselves 
might be said to be demonstrated. Lincoln saw the gathering 
storm clouds of that crisis in the wave of mob violence sweeping 
the country in 1838. His diagnosis of the causes of that violence 
showed he did not believe it to be any transient wave of popular 
feeling, but a disease endemic to the government inherited from 
the Revolution. Certainly his own exhortation to self-restraint 
could not have been expected to be even a palliative of such 
evils. Such exhortation serves only to indicate the nature of the 
role required by him who would administer the true remedy, but 
it is clear that the opportunity to apply that remedy lay only in 
part in the power of its possessor, llie political savior, like that 
other Messiah, must await the fulfillment of prophecies implicit 
in the very conception of his own function before he could step 

The Lyceum speech ends by saying that the old "pillars of 
the temple of liberty . . . have crumbled away" and the "temple 
must fall, unless we ... supply their places with other pillars, 
hewn from the solid quarry of sober reason." The pillars of the 
first temple, the work of the Revolutionary Fathers, were, alas, 
not quarried from a solid substance, and because they were not 
the temple did not endure. A second temple must be built, of 
rock, which shall last as long as the "only greater institution." 
Like that other institution, this one also finds its consummation 


in an apocalyptic vision, when "the last trump shall awaken our 
WASHINGTON," to find the republic still free, its soil undese- 
crated by a hostile foot, and his name still revered. It is typical 
of the many paradoxes of the Lyceum speech that this passionate 
summons to passionate rededication is characterized as a plea 
for "cold, calculating, unimpassioned reasonl" 

We have seen that the work of the Fathers was, in a sense, 
predestined to at least temporary failure because of the inner 
tension, engendered by the idea of equality, between the people's 
rights and the people's duties. Life, liberty, and the pursuit of 
happiness required institutions of government a to secure these 
rights." The people had a sacred duty to maintain a constitution 
and laws designed to secure them; but the strength of anarchic 
passions in the people was such that it would have been Utopian 
to expect mere intellectual recognition of this fact to be sufficient 
to produce obedience. Since the first and most successful enter- 
prise of the Fathers was to produce disobedience to an ancient 
established order, it would have been peculiarly difficult for them 
to inculcate reverence. We have already seen that the need for 
reverence was well understood by the authors of the Federalist. 1 
In the same forty-ninth number, from which we have already 
quoted, occurs this further statement of the theme of the Lyceum 

We are to recollect that all the existing constitutions were 
formed in the midst of a danger which repressed the passions 
most unfriendly to order and concord; of an enthusiastic 
confidence of the people in their patriotic leaders, which 
stifled the ordinary diversity of opinions on great national 
questions; of a universal ardor for new and opposite forms 
produced by a universal resentment and indignation against 
the ancient government . . . The future situations in which 
we must expect to be usually placed, do not present any 
equivalent security against the danger which is apprehended. 

Although the Federalist presents Lincoln's problem with great 
clarity, its fundamental approach to the solution is predicated 
on the idea that it is possible to build a political system on the 
"policy of supplying, by opposite and rival interests, the defect 
of better motives." 2 Hamilton and Madison thought that somehow 
passions might be controlled by the government, while reason 
would control the government. 8 "Ambition must be made to 


counteract ambition. The interest of the man must be connected 
with the constitutional rights of the place." 4 Lincoln, we have 
seen, denies the ultimate adequacy of this approach affirming 
its insufficiency, not its incorrectness because he denies that there 
is a constitutional place for the highest ambitions. It is true that 
there is a sense in which ambition in Lincoln's scheme still must 
counteract ambition. The Messianic ambition must counteract the 
Caesarian. But the loyalty which the Constitution must command 
must be generated by a nobler vision of excellence than that of 
a well-contrived machine. Lincoln's verdict upon a document such 
as the Federalist may be inferred from his association, at the 
end of the Lyceum speech, of "cold, calculating" reason with 
the Last Judgment. 

Lincoln's solution involved, as we have seen, an engrafting of 
the passion of revealed religion upon the body of secular political 
rationalism. How this differed from what the founding generation 
attempted may be seen by comparing the cadences of the Gettys- 
burg Address not only with the Declaration but with the following 
passage of Washington's Farewell Address (upon which both 
Hamilton and Madison had collaborated with the author) : 

Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political 
prosperity, Religion and Morality are indispensable supports. 
In vain would that man claim the tribute of Patriotism who 
should labor to subvert these great pillars of human happi- 
ness, these firmest props of the duties of Men and Citizens. 
The mere Politician, equally with the pious man ought to 
respect and to cherish them . . . Where is the security for 
property, for reputation, for life, if the sense of religious 
obligation desert the oaths, which are the instruments of 
investigation in Courts of Justice? And let us with caution 
indulge the supposition that morality can be maintained with- 
out religion. Whatever may be conceded to the influence of 
refined education on minds of peculiar structure, reason and 
experience forbid us to expect that national morality can 
prevail in exclusion of religious principle. 

It would be difficult to find a more condensed expression 
of Lincolnian doctrine which was at the same time more alien in 
tone and feeling to the sense of what Lincoln believed. Wash- 
ington's discussion of the utilitarian function of religion and 
morality is of a piece with the Federalist's discussion of the 


mechanical distribution of the powers of government under the 
Constitution. Whereas Lincoln spoke of "the only greater institu- 
tion," the politician is here said to have an "equal" motive with 
the pious man, as if "human happiness" and immortal felicity 
were on the same levell Washington bids us indulge with caution 
the supposition that "morality" can be maintained without re- 
ligion. But in the very next sentence he says, with contrasting 
emphasis, that reason and experience forbid us to expect "national 
morality" thus to prevail. And he conspicuously sets aside the 
question of a religious requirement for superior minds with a 
superior education. We here see the mingling, like oil and water, 
of the rationalism and religion of the eighteenth century. Compare 
Washington's "equalizing" of piety and policy with the following 
statement of Lincoln from a handbill to the voters of the Seventh 
Congressional District in Illinois in 1846, when he was running for 
the House and his opponent, the evangelical minister Peter 
Cartwright had circulated a charge of infidelity against him: 

I do not think I could myself, be brought to support a man 
for office, whom I knew to be an open enemy of, and scoffer 
at, religion. Leaving the higher [our italics] matter of eter- 
nal consequences, between him and his Maker, I still do not 
think any man has the right thus to insult the feelings, 
and injure the morals, of the community in which he may 
live. 5 

Washington propounds the need for reverence and concedes 
(more then he insists) that reverence (or obligation) is born 
of the sense of the sacred that religion bestows. But there is 
no trace of reverence in Washington's discussion of the need for 
reverence; the sacred is treated as a necessity of the profane. 
In Lincoln the profane is transformed into the sacred, but in 
Washington the profane order merely profits from the existence 
in it of men who fear God. 

It is worth our while also to consider some parallel reflections 
from Jefferson's Notes on Virginia, produced in the years 1781 
and 1782, and a commentary of unsurpassed authority on the 
spirit of '76. The following is from Query XVII, concerning the 
different religions of Virginia. Jefferson has just enumerated some 
surviving relics of the old common-law penalties for heresy. 

This is a summary view of that religious slavery under which 


a people have been willing to remain, who have lavished 
their lives and fortunes for the establishment of their civil 
freedom. The error seems not sufficiently eradicated, that the 
operations of the mind, as well as the acts of the body, are 
subject to the coercion of the laws. But our rulers can have 
no authority over such natural rights, only as we have sub- 
mitted to them. The rights of conscience we never submitted, 
we could not submit We are answerable for them to our 
God. The legitimate powers of government extend to such 
acts only as are injurious to others. But it does me no injury 
for my neighbor to say there are twenty gods, or no God. 
It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg. e 

The view of the nature and value of religious and civil liberty 
here expressed by Jefferson was unquestionably Lincoln's own. 
Or, we should say, it was as much Lincoln's view as it was Jef- 
ferson's; for we can discover expressions by both men which imply 
similar qualifications to the foregoing doctrine. Jefferson could 
hardly have meant with full seriousness that the object of govern- 
ment was solely to prevent damage to the body or the pocket. 
On the other hand, when Lincoln says no man has a right to 
insult the feelings or injure the morals of his fellow citizens, he 
does not mean that the citizen has a political right to legal pro- 
tection against such injury. He means that the offender suffers 
just punishment when he loses the esteem and good will of his 
fellow citizens. Jefferson accepts this, too, when he says, "If it 
be said, his [i.e,, the scoffer's] testimony in a court of justice 
cannot be relied on, reject it then, and be the stigma on him. 1 * 
Both men accept the idea of social stigma as the natural and 
appropriate reward for contemptuous heterodoxy. Lincoln, how- 
ever, would never have expressed as openly, or rather as irascibly, 
as Jefferson does his contempt for the older religious tradition, 
which sees eternal salvation as something to which the powers 
of government might contribute positively. Why he would not 
has never been better expressed than by Jefferson himself in the 
very next query in the famous Notes. The following embraces 
a passage which was, to Lincoln, a jewel whose price was sur- 
passed only by the Declaration of Independence itself: 

And can the liberties of a nation be thought secure when 
we have removed their only firm basis, a conviction in the 
minds of the people that these liberties are the gift of God? 


That they are not to be violated but with his wrath? Indeed I 
tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just; that 
his justice cannot sleep forever . . J 

How did Jefferson suppose that one man could not injure another 
by spreading atheism and skepticism if the only firm basis of our 
liberties was a conviction of particular providence, of dependence 
upon a personal God for the receiving of our rights, and of his 
rewards and punishments for honoring or dishonoring them? The 
answer is, presumably, that "Reason and free inquiry are the 
only effectual agents against error. Give a loose to them, they 
will support the true religion by bringing every false one to their 
tribunal, to the test of their investigation." 8 There is a suggestion 
of naive optimism, however, in this celebrated aphorism. How 
do we know that the tribunal of reason and free inquiry will have 
the power of subpoena? That Jefferson was not naive, however, 
the following passage from the same paragraph (from Query 
XVII) assuredly indicates. Its summons to shore up the people's 
respect for the principles of the people's government indicates 
an impressive agreement concerning the fundamental problem 
of American government by Washington, Hamilton, Madison, 
Jefferson, and Lincoln. 

Let us ... get rid, while we may, of those tyrannical laws 
[of heresy, perpetuated by the old common law]. It is true, 
we are yet secured against them by the spirit of the times 
. . . But is the spirit of the people an infallible, a permanent 
reliance? . . . the spirit of the times may alter, will alter. 
Our rulers will become corrupt, our people careless ... It 
can never be too often repeated, that the time for fixing every 
essential right on a legal basis is while our rulers are honest, 
and ourselves united. From the conclusion of this war we 
shall be going downhill. It will not then be necessary to resort 
every moment to the people for support . . . They will 
forget themselves, but in the sole faculty of making money, 
and will never think of uniting to effect a due respect for 
their rights. 9 

Jefferson saw in the revolutionary fervor a rare opportunity for 
fixing the principles of civil and religious liberty in public law. 
The backsliding that Lincoln was to lament in 1838 and thereafter, 
Jefferson amply anticipated. But Jefferson did not seem to antici- 


pate what a broken reed the law itself would be once the spirit of 
the people departed from it. And there was a fundamental incon- 
sistency in Jefferson's faith in "reason and free inquiry" and his 
belief that the people would normally be preoccupied, not with 
their rights, but with the avid pursuit of gain. For the people to re- 
main united in effecting due respect from their "rulers" for their 
rights, they must themselves first have such respect. And this re- 
spect, according to Jefferson no less than Lincoln, depends upon a 
firm conviction that they are the gift of a just God. No responsible 
statesman can then be indifferent to anything that weakens such a 
conviction. He must, on the contrary, hold that the strengthening 
of that conviction is the first and highest task of statesmanship, be- 
cause it is the condition of every other political good. This task, 
however, Lincoln, no less than Jefferson, held to be outside the 
framework of politics in the ordinary sense. It is not for the law 
to command assent to religious doctrines; on the contrary, it is 
the function of religious doctrines to command assent to the rule 
of law. Reason and free inquiry will support the true religion, 
in Jefferson's sense, if the people support the rule of law erected 
on the foundation of their own rights. But reason and free inquiry 
cannot pursue their vocation in an atmosphere of mob violence; 
reason and free inquiry presuppose, for their efficacy, Lincoln's 
"political religion," Jefferson's "firm basis" in the conviction of 
divine justice. 

It is of some importance that the central thought not only of 
the Gettysburg Address but of Lincoln's second inaugural has its 
literary foundationapart from the Old and New Testaments 
in the writings of Thomas Jefferson, whom Lincoln called "the 
most distinguished politician of our history." The passage in the 
eighteenth query of the Notes, from which we have quoted in 
part, 10 contains a prophecy by Jefferson of a tremendous "revolu- 
tion of the wheel of fortune," in which he foresaw the possibility 
that the position of the white and black races on this continent 
might one day be reversed. Nay, more, such "an exchange of 
situation . . . may become probable by supernatural interference. 
The Almighty has no attribute which can take side with us in such 
a contest," he says, in anticipation of, "It may seem strange that 
any men should dare ask a just God's assistance in wringing their 
bread from the sweat of other men's faces." But Jefferson ended 
this discussion in the Notes by flying completely in the face of his 


previous prediction that "From the conclusion of this war we shall 
be going downhill" and optimistically envisaged "the spirit of the 
master abating, that of the slave rising from the dust, his condition 
mollifying, the way I hope preparing, under the auspices of 
heaven, for a total emancipation . . . with the consent of the 
masters, rather than by their extirpation/' 

Yet Jefferson was far more correct when he saw that the people's 
preoccupation with money-making would undermine their re- 
spect for human rights, particularly when money could be made 
by trafficking in bodies and souls possessed of those rights. It 
is impressive and significant beyond words that Jefferson, who 
was such a confirmed detractor of revealed theology, and whose 
works are filled with contempt for it, of the quality of the pocket- 
picking, leg-breaking order, could not but express himself in the 
most solemn language of that theology when he contemplated 
the institution of Negro slavery. On Jefferson's own premises it 
would seem that nothing would have been efficacious in abating 
the avarice in the master's spirit but a conviction that a living God 
would one day cause all the wealth piled up by the bondman's 
unrequited toil to be sunk and a conviction that the master's own 
life and liberty might perish in the convulsion. Jefferson's warfare 
against clerical influences was a noble warfare in so far as it 
meant establishing religious liberty. But Jefferson carried that 
warfare too far, if we are to take seriously what he himself says 
about the basis of civil and religious liberty. And Jefferson's 
notoriety as a free thinker made it difficult, if not impossible, for 
him to be taken seriously when he did warn his countrymen of 
divine vengeance for their sinful adherence to slavery. 

It must not be thought, however, that because Lincoln wished 
to enlist the religious feelings of the American people in full sup- 
port of their form of government that he saw no dangers to civil 
liberty from religious passions. The truth is the exact opposite. 
The struggle for separation of church and state, for disestablish- 
ment, for most of the legal forms of religious freedom, had been 
largely won; Jefferson's victory had been virtually complete. But 
theological intolerance in American political life now took a sub- 
tler and more dangerous form. Mid-nineteenth-century America 
was swept by a whole series of alleged reform movements tem- 
perance, abolitionism (and its southern counterpart, the positive- 
good advocacy of slavery), nativism, Young Americanism, femi- 
nism (in its early manifestations) and many of these received 


their dynamic impulse by the encouragement they received from, 
and their association with, the churches. A single word sums up 
the common core of many of these mid-century movements, and 
that is mittennialism. The vision animating reformers was not that 
of a better world but of a well-nigh perfect world, of a New 
Jerusalem. Theirs was secularized Puritanism, combining the 
spirit of religious messianism with the substance of a naive 
rationalism and this-worldly utopianism. In the peroration of Lin- 
coln's Temperance Address, to which we shall shortly turn, he 
characterizes the aim of this movement as the final subjection of 
all passions to reason, of all matter to mind. It is not the ameliora- 
tion of the human condition but the transformation of human 
nature which is here meant by "reform." 

The temperance movement and the abolitionist movement 
were both nurtured by the evangelical spirit, and what Lincoln 
has to say about temperance will give us a remarkable insight 
into his whole view of reform, as that was understood in both 
these movements. "Temperance" is, in a sense, the more funda- 
mental of the two, since it meant not the Aristotelian golden 
mean of the passions but the entire elimination of the influence 
of passion over human conduct, chattel slavery being only one 
consequence of such influence. That the root of slavery was in- 
deed in bad human passions Lincoln certainly believed. Jefferson 
had said that, particularly in a warm climate, no man will earn 
his own bread if he can compel another to earn it for him, and 
Lincoln had repeated this thought in many variants. 11 But Lin- 
coln was sensitive to the danger that extreme expectations of 
worldly perfection would engender extreme political solutions, 
requiring extreme measures and extreme power in those who 
would carry them through. The expectations that were proper 
and fitting for the kingdom of heaven might be fatal to the free- 
dom of a republic. The spirit of theological intolerance, denied 
by Jefferson the instrument of power for theological ends, might 
be vindictively triumphant if it seized the goals of secular ration- 
alism as its own. 

We saw in Lincoln's Lyceum speech not only a far-sighted 
anticipation of dangers threatening the perpetuation of our politi- 
cal institutions but a serious critique of the principles upon which 
they were originally based. This critique had the purpose not of 
weakening the faith of its would-be preserver but of making it 
more enlightened. We saw how and why a critical detachment 


from the object of their highest devotion was a necessary attri- 
bute of founders and of saviors. But Lincoln saw himself not only 
as the savior of the political institutions, but by that fact the 
founder of a political religion. And that implied and required 
another, similar kind of critical detachment. Lincoln's temperance 
speech contains a theological critique which parallels his critique 
of the dogmas of the Revolution. 

Like the Lyceum speech, the Temperance Address had its 
occasion in contemporary political developments. When Lincoln 
delivered it, it would have been difficult to say whether temper- 
ance or slavery would be the dominating vote-producing question 
of the years just ahead. The famous Maine liquor law was passed 
in that state shortly after the Compromise of 1850, and laws 
modeled on it were passed in Massachusetts, Vermont, Rhode 
Island, and Connecticut The prohibition ferment reached a peak 
in Illinois in 1855, an ^ a version of the Maine law passed there 
two weeks after Lincoln had failed in his first bid for the Senate. 
By that time, however, he had hitched his wagon to the anti- 
slavery star and found it prudent to keep silent on the liquor 
question. In 1842, however, he was espousing the temperance 
cause energetically. That Lincoln did not believe in temperance, 
as the reformers believed in it, we believe it is easy to demon- 
strate. In the address we shall see Lincoln disavow the spirit of 
intolerance which characterized the "old school champions" of 
temperance, as he was later to disavow John Brown and abolition. 
Yet even as he one day became the Great Emancipator, after a 
lifelong disapproval of abolition, so we find him here, in a kind 
of anticipatory gesture, accomplishing a similar feat by placing 
himself, rhetorically, at the head of a movement in which he 
found more to disapprove than to approve. 

Although Lincoln had little sympathy with abolitionist or tem- 
perance reformers, it was because he disapproved of their temper 
and their methods. His sympathy with the ultimate aims of 
abolition cannot be doubted, nor his sympathy with temperance, 
if the term is understood rightly and not as the alleged reformers 
understood it. For the nativists, the anti-immigrants, the Know- 
Nothings, self-styled "Americans," Lincoln felt only loathing and 
contempt How could he, he once said, who abhorred the op- 


pression of Negroes, approve the degrading of classes of white 
men? Yet it was Lincoln's political fate one day to need the 
Know-Nothing vote in much the same way that Douglas needed 
the pro-slavery vote. And the temperance movement, as we have 
noted, being an offshoot of radical Protestantism, had anti- 
Catholic, anti-foreign overtones. Particularly were there anti-Irish 
overtones, for the Irish were hated both for their Popery and 
their alleged addiction to drink. In the Temperance Address there 
is, incidentally, a good-natured Irish joke. The joke is harmless 
enough, yet plays on both the risibilities and prejudices of the 
audience, neatly drawing attention from what might otherwise 
have been a dangerous doctrine: the absurdity of other-worldly 
in contrast to this-worldly sanctions for morality. The Whig 
Lincoln might thus tell Irish jokes; it is doubtful that the Democrat 
Douglas would have done so. In short, Lincoln's Temperance 
Address, on the surface a merely conventional oration, strongly 
praising virtue and condemning vice, is a well-appointed ship 
for navigating some of the strongest voting tides of mid-century 
America: temperance, abolition, nativism. 

Yet the theme of the speech is one of the four cardinal virtues, 
not a concrete political proposal. How did Lincoln on this one 
occasion discuss moral virtue? Consider the nature of the occasion 
on which he spoke. The following is from the first volume of 
Beveridge's Lincoln: 12 

The Temperance movement . . . which had been in prog- 
ress all over the country, was now in full swing throughout 
Illinois; and ... an extraordinary temperance agitation 
was in progress. The feeling against excessive drinking, which 
had shown itself by petitions to the legislature had come 
to a head, and fervent temperance meetings were being 
held in every township. Lincoln joined this crusade and 
made temperance speeches in many villages and hamlets. 
The Washingtonian Society, largely made up of reformed 
drunkards, had swept over the nation . . . When a unit of 
this society was formed in Springfield, he delivered a tem- 
perance address before it on Washington's birthday 1842. 

It was a great occasion. From eleven o'clock until noon a 
procession paraded the streets. At the head marched "the 
beautiful company of Sangamo guards under the command 
of Captain E. D. Baker." 13 An "immense crowd" gathered 


at the Second Presbyterian Church where the exercises were 
held. Brightly shone the sun on that joyous day and loud 
rang the songs of temperance. So "delighted" was the audi- 
ence with the singing, that "several pieces were a second 
tune called for and repeated." Finally, soon after twelve 
o'clock Lincoln rose and addressed the audience that packed 
the church- 
In this atmosphere, a quaint indigenous mixture of revival meet- 
ing, political jamboree, and football rally, Lincoln discoursed on 
a theme that had taxed the wisest heads of Athens and Jerusalem 
and of the great universities. One can hardly imagine an occasion 
better calculated to bring forth all the clich& of a man's soul, 
yet Lincoln's performance on this occasion was not unworthy of 
a pupil of the greatest of the masters who had preceded him. 
Lincoln did in a way produce all the cliches that the occasion 
called for. But they were not the cliches of his soul. Clich&, in one 
sense or another, are indispensable to public speaking. The prob- 
lem, we believe, is whether a speaker, in identifying himself with 
his audience, thereby surrenders any independent identity of his 
own or achieves, at least in speech ( the indispensable basis for 
achieving it in deed), a new identity for the audience. This 
rhetorical question is discussed explicitly within the Temperance 

When the conduct of men is designed to be influenced, 
persuasion, land, unassuming persuasion, should ever be 
adopted. It is an old and true maxim "that a drop of honey 
catches more flies than a gallon of gall." So with men. If 
you would win a man to your cause, first convince him that 
you are his sincere friend Therein is a drop of honey that 
catches his heart, which, say what you will, is the great high 
road to his reason . . . 

We may assume then that Lincoln will give us an example 
of that maxim applied. While the formal or apparent subject of 
the speech is the praise of a movement devoted to banishing 
intoxicating liquor, its real subject is the difference between the 
wrong and the right way of effecting any moral reform in society. 
More specifically, it is the difference between a temperate and 
an intemperate approach to moral reform. Since Lincoln in the 
speech presents himself as a moral reformer, Lincoln's speech, 


which is also Lincoln's deed upon the occasion, should be an 
example of temperate action. But "actions speak louder than 
words," and men's actions sometimes bely their words. "Don't 
do as I do; do as I say," may sometimes be good advice, but 
no one ever takes it. Every moralist knows that precept without 
example is vain, and the political moralist knows that the pattern 
of behavior he sets before his audience will influence them more 
deeply than the arguments he employs while setting that pat- 
tern. Now no man has ever been more credited with self-control 
than Lincoln; and if it is true, as Aristotle says, that we must 
look to the men we credit with the virtues to understand what 
virtue is, then we must not only listen to what Lincoln says but 
observe how he himself exercised self-control on this occasion. 
To comprehend his behavior, we must attend not only to the 
explicit argument of the speech but to the argument implicit in 
the consequences which we discern are intended by the speech. 
How the implicit and explicit arguments may differ may be in- 
dicated by some brief anticipations of the analysis to follow. 
When Lincoln criticizes the means employed by others to effect 
moral reform we must ask precisely how the means he is at that 
moment employing differ from those he rejects. And if we some- 
times find, as we shall, that Lincoln pays his antagonists the 
sincerest kind of flattery, that of imitation, we may suspect that 
the explicit argument is, in part at least, specious and that the 
real controversy is not limited to means but concerns ends. Re- 
flecting further, we may conclude that the reason for the partial 
substitution of a specious issue for a real one is that Lincoln 
differs not only with his alleged antagonists but with his alleged 
friends. In this way we may also find that real temperance is far 
more a virtue of the appetites of the mind than of those of the 
body, that it has more to do with the control of one's thoughts, or 
the expression of those thoughts, than with the control of one's 

In the passage we have quoted Lincoln says that you must 
convince a man that you are his sincere friend if you would 
win him to your cause. The impression throughout the speech is 
that the temperance cause is Lincoln's cause. Yet, whether this 
were true or not, Lincoln would be required by his own rhetorical 
principle to give such an impression; otherwise, how could he 
convince the temperance people (including, of course, those who 
would vote temperance "as long as they could stagger to the 


polls") that he was their friend? As a politician Lincoln always 
was compelled to adopt, to "befriend," professed causes and be- 
liefs of his fellow citizens and hoped-for constituents. Yet to adopt 
the opinions of others, for public purposes, does not mean to 
believe in them. The Temperance Address shows, as do few 
documents of modern politics, a method whereby a public man 
can both accept and reject the prejudices of his contemporaries; 
how he can, at one and the same time, flatter their vanity and 
chasten their egotism; how he can, appearing to agree with their 
opinions, modify them, however little, or failing that, so to pro- 
mote his own leadership that, when these opinions come to be 
applied, they will be applied by a man whose judgment is not 
chained to them and who can thus utilize them for wiser purposes. 

A broad survey of Lincoln's Temperance Address discloses a 
plan with a chronological pattern. 14 It begins with a celebration 
of the present success of the movement, reviews its past history, 
and ends with an apocalyptic vision of its future complete tri- 
umph. Now it is a principle of rhetoric, of public speaking, that 
the beginning and the end are the parts which particularly arrest 
attention, just as the contrasting dialectic principle focuses at- 
tention on the center. The beginning and the end are the "ex- 
ternals," the parts best calculated to strike the notice of the 
unobservant many, who are the typical addressees of rhetoric. 
It is in these parts of his speech that we would especially look 
for the cliches or conventional opinions called for by the occasion. 
And Lincoln does not disappoint us on the contrary, he exceeds 
every legitimate expectation! Let us hear him celebrate the 
present success of the cause with almost every excess of allitera- 
tion, assonance, repetition, and metaphor: 

The list of its friends is daily swelled by the additions of 
fifties, of hundreds, and of thousands. The cause itself seems 
suddenly transformed from a cold, abstract theory, to a 
living, breathing, active, and powerful chieftain, going forth 
"conquering and to conquer." The citadels of his great ad- 
versary are daily being stormed and dismantled; his temples 
and his altars, where the rites of his idolatrous worship have 
long been performed, and where daily sacrifices have long 
been wont to be made, are daily desecrated and deserted. 
The trump of the conqueror's fame is sounding from hill to 


hill, from sea to sea, and from land to land, and calling 
millions to his standard at a blast 

If the foregoing sample of buncombe seems overdone, listen to 
the following, from the peroration, to which we adverted above, 
in which the millennial vision of the final triumph of the temper- 
ance cause is hailed in frenzied accents suggestive of passages 
in the Book of Revelation: 

... its march cannot fail to be on and on, till every son 
of earth shall drink in rich fruition the sorrow quenching 
draughts of perfect liberty. Happy day, when all appetites 
controlled, all passions subdued, all matters subjected, mind, 
all conquering mind, shall live and move the monarch of 
the world. Glorious consummation! Hail, fall of furyl Reign 
of Reason, all hail! 

That contemplation of the final victory of temperance should 
induce such verbal intoxication is an incongruity which, we think, 
did not escape the author of the passage, especially in considera- 
tion of the malicious play on the sense of the word "drink." 15 With 
this we state plainly our opinion that Lincoln, in the beginning 
and end of his Temperance Address, was caricaturing the style 
of the enthusiasts of the movement. The caricature is close enough 
to reality to please the enthusiasts, while exaggerated enough to 
indicate to any shrewd non-enthusiast that Lincoln was not such 
an enthusiast himself. In short, Lincoln's exaggerated style, in 
the most rhetorical parts of his speech, is a rhetorical device to 
show how purely rhetorical are the sentiments therein expressed! 
However, it is not so much the stylistic metaphor in the extremities 
of the speech as the argument at its center that contains Lincoln's 
considered views. Before turning to that argument we observe 
that, throughout the speech, Lincoln employs this same device 
whenever he presents, even in indirect discourse, the rhetoric of 
the devotees, old or new, of the movement. When he presents 
his own commentary or criticism, it is in a style as simple and 
free from affectation as the Gettysburg Address. Humorless 
critics, who have failed to perceive the difference between the 
sober accents that are Lincoln's own and the high style of his 
mimicry, have called the speech an immature work. We can not 
readily recall a more precocious example of literary skill. 


The central section of the address is introduced by the following 

For this new and splendid success, we heartily rejoice. That 
that success is so much greater now than heretofore, is doubt- 
less owing to rational causes; and if we would have it to 
continue, we shall do well to inquire what those causes are. 

This plain prose follows immediately after the passage from the 
exordium concerning the conqueror's blast. Lincoln turns from the 
celebration of the success of the temperance movement to an 
inquiry into the causes of that success. The alleged purpose of 
such an inquiry is to enable the success to continue. On the 
assumption that no one has previously supplied this knowledge, 
Lincoln implies that true understanding has not hitherto guided 
the movement; its present success is then due to providence or 
chance. We must remember this in observing the praise of the 
Washingtonians, wherein their wisdom is contrasted with the folly 
of the old reformers. The wisdom of the Washingtonians is not 
true wisdom; it is at most what Aristotle would call successful 
experience, and without a correct knowledge of the cause of that 
experience it will never be true wisdom. Only as Lincoln supplies 
that knowledge of causes will it be a true reform movement 

But Lincoln's turn to the quest for "rational causes" leads in 
a somewhat unexpected way to deeper questions. The rational 
causes are said to consist, for the most part, in the human 
passions, which Lincoln here treats, almost like Spinoza, as if 
they were governed by a necessity as much a part of the order 
of nature as that whereby a stone falls. The old temperance 
reformers were the fire-and-brimstone type who used denuncia- 
tion instead of the persuasion we have already seen Lincoln 
recommend. What was the result of their tactics? 

To have expected them [i.e., the dram sellers and the dram 
drinkers] to do otherwise than as they did to have expected 
them not to meet denunciation with denunciation, crimina- 
tion with crimination, and anathema with anathema, was to 
expect a reversal of human nature, which is God's decree, 
and can never be reversed. 

The quest for "rational causes" is thus a quest for causes rooted 
in human nature. That men should be governed in their behavior 
by such causes is here attributed by Lincoln to God: natural law 


and divine law appear to coincide. However, Lincoln's manner 
of reference to the divine decree is somewhat heterodox: he says 
that it "can" never be reversed, not that it "will" never be reversed. 
Traditionally the God of Israel was thought to be bound by his 
own promises but not by necessity. It is rather the God of 
Aristotle and Spinoza who is so bound. 16 Now we believe it was, 
at least in Lincoln's day, ground common to all Christian sects 
that the strength of some passions, at least, was not to be attrib- 
uted to God's decree but to man's sinfulness. While different 
sects estimated differently the extent of the weakening of man's 
nature as a result of the Fall, all agreed that in man's fallen 
condition a knowledge of human nature alone does not suffice. 
Lincoln's attack on the intemperance of the old temperance 
movement involved, necessarily, an attack on the premise upon 
which that movement rested, namely, its theology. That theology 
taught that the prime conditions of moral reformation were faith 
and grace and that natural knowledge of natural causes would 
be worthless without these; Lincoln, to say the least, reverses 
this priority and seems to argue that rational knowledge of human 
nature is sufficient and that the intrusion of the doctrine of man's 
sinfulness into the work of moral reform has been an obstacle 
to the beneficent operation of these natural causes. It is true that 
Lincoln also implies in the course of the speech that the Washing- 
tonians not only work in harmony with human nature but that 
they are ipso facto the bearers of a true Christianity, as distinct 
from the Pharisaical Christianity of the old-school champions. But 
whether, according to Lincoln, the provenience of the "true" 
Christianity is the Christian revelation or natural knowledge of 
human nature is not easy to say. The relation of moral virtue 
to revelation on the one hand and to unassisted reason on the 
other is the deepest problem of Lincoln's Temperance Address. 

The topical arrangement of the body of the speech is detailed 
and complex. It has two clearly distinguishable parts, but the 
relation of these is problematic. Of the thirty paragraphs of 
Lincoln's text, we refer to numbers three to twenty-four as the 
body. 17 Of these, numbers three to eighteen may be classified 
under the heading "causes of present success" and numbers nine- 
teen to twenty-four under the heading "causes of future success." 
The ratio is thus roughly three to one (roughly, because the 
paragraphs are not of equal length). However, the part dealing 


with present success is, in fact, chiefly an account of the causes of 
past failure. Although the new movement is praised by way of 
contrast with the old, twice as much space is devoted to condemn- 
ing the old as to praising the new. When we come to the much 
shorter section called "causes of future success," we find that Lin- 
coln devoted less than a third of it to what he says will be the 
main cause of that success namely, the missionary work of the 
reformed drunkards and more than two thirds to discussing the 
objections of the non-drunkards whose assistance is supposed to 
be vital but who want no part in a drunkards' movement, re- 
formed or otherwise. If we add up the space Lincoln devotes to 
objections to both temperance movements, old and new, we find 
that more than two thirds of the body of the speech consists of 
criticisms and attacks on temperance movements. 

I have said that the relation of these two central parts is 
problematic. It is not clear whether the second of the two is 
thought to succeed the first or is conceived as a subdivision of 
the first. This uncertainty, in a work so carefully articulated, may 
not be inadvertent. The section accounting for present success 
is, as we have noted, mainly preoccupied with past failure. This 
failure Lincoln in large measure attributes, as we have said, to 
Christian theology, or one interpretation of that theology. The 
contrasting success of the Washingtonians is attributed in this 
section not to a contrasting interpretation of Christianity but to 
a wise (or, rather, fortunate) co-operation with the beneficial 
passions of human nature. But then in the succeeding section ( if 
it is in fact the succeeding one), purportedly devoted to the 
grounds for future success, Lincoln concentrates upon the princi- 
pal anticipated obstacle to that success. This obstacle is the con- 
tempt that virtuous men feel for the vicious and their sense of 
superiority even to those who have reformed. This attitude of 
proud contempt toward moral weaklings is, incidentally, fully 
consistent with the idea of a virtuous man as that idea is expressed 
in the Nicomachean Ethics. Aristotle says that the virtuous man 
does not possess the sense of shame, for he would be incapable 
of anything shameful. And a man who regards himself as incapa- 
ble of shameful deeds cannot possibly possess the sympathy 
toward those who are capable of them, whether reformed or not, 
that one may possess who is conscious of weakness within himself. 
In this context Lincoln appeals to the Christian idea of the 
original and common sinfulness of humanity, to the idea that 


there are none who are not moral weaklings, apart from divine 
grace, to overcome the argument of the contemptuous non- 
joiners. Thus Lincoln in the first of these two sections accounted 
for the failure of the old temperance movement largely because 
of the manner in which theological considerations, specifically a 
doctrinaire application of the theory of original sin, impeded the 
beneficent operation of human nature; in the latter section he 
seems to appeal to another aspect of the identical theological 
dogma to aid in the final victory of the new temperance move- 
ment. The fundamental difficulty, as it seems to us, in interpreting 
Lincoln's Temperance Address is whether the theology to which 
he appeals to remove the obstacles to final success is the same 
or different from that which was the root of the past failure of 
the movement. If this theology is ultimately one and the same, 
then the alleged condition of the final victory of the movement 
would be of a piece with the alleged cause of its past failure. There 
would then be no final victory over intemperance, and the ac- 
count of the future would in reality be a part of the account 
of the past. 

Let us now turn to the first of the two foregoing parts of the 
body of the Temperance Address. This also is divided into two 
main parts: the first devoted to the proposition that the old 
movement was championed by the wrong men, the second, that 
it employed the wrong measures. 

The warfare heretofore waged against the demon of in- 
temperance has, somehow or other, been erroneous. Either 
the champions engaged, or the tactics they adopted, have 
not been the most proper. These champions for the most 
part, have been Preachers, Lawyers, and hired agents. Be- 
tween these and the mass of mankind, there is a want of 
approachdbility, if the term be admissible, partially at least, 
fatal to success. 

". . . it is so easy," Lincoln proceeds: 

and so common to ascribe motives to men of these classes, 
other than those they profess to act upon. The preacher, it 
is said, advocates temperance because he is a fanatic, and 
desires a union of Church and State; the lawyer, from his 
pride and vanity of hearing himself speak; and the hired 
agent, for his salary. 


Now, of these three, the central class mentioned is that of lawyers, 
and Lincoln, we all know, was a lawyer. Lincoln warns his audi- 
ence against the class to which he himself belonged. Or should 
we say that he warns them, and us, against the class that he 
would belong to if he had been a temperance reformer? This 
passage should be remembered when, in the sequel, we come 
to Lincoln's alleged refutations of the objections of non-drunkards 
to joining the Washingtonians. For who is there, apart from the 
reformed drunks, whose motives the dram drinkers and dram 
sellers might not equally suspect? Do not the butcher and baker 
each have something to sell, and cannot they too be suspected 
of joining a public hue and cry for interested reasons? If the 
motives of all such men are suspect, then it would injure the 
movement rather than benefit it, on the grounds Lincoln shows, 
if they were to join it. And if Lincoln does urge such men to 
join the movement, as he later does, does he not show himself 
a questionable friend? Does he not thereby raise in our minds 
a doubt as to his motives, of the kind he assigns here to lawyers 
as a class? 

However, in listing preachers, lawyers, and hired agents as the 
wrong kind of champions for a temperance movement, Lincoln 
omits to mention politicians. And it was in his capacity of politi- 
cian, rather than that of lawyer, that Lincoln appeared on the 
platform. If infatuation with the sound of their own voices is a 
vice of lawyers, it is even more the vice of professional vote 
getters. Certainly the power of vanity over the demagogue, who 
thinks his voice is the voice of the people and the people's that 
of God, is infinitely greater. It is difficult to avoid the impression 
that when Lincoln says "lawyers" he means "politicians." The very 
reason for Lincoln's swimming in the temperance tide was that 
it was becoming not merely a movement for moral reform but 
a movement for legislation, a plank in party platforms. In our 
opinion Lincoln's concentration upon the peculiar virtues of the 
Washingtonians points away from such legislation and leads much 
more logically to such an organization as Alcoholics Anonymous, 
with emphasis on both A's. 

But when one, who has long been known as a victim of 
intemperance, bursts the fetters that have bound him, and 
appears before his neighbors "clothed, and in his right mind," 
a redeemed specimen of lost humanity, and stands up with 


tears of joy trembling in eyes, to tell of the miseries once 
endured, now to be endured no more forever . . . however 
simple his language, there is a logic, and an eloquence in it, 
that few, with human feelings, can resist. They cannot say 
that he desires a union of church and state, for he is not 
a church member; they can not say that he is vain of hearing 
himself speak, for his whole demeanor shows, he would 
gladly avoid speaking at all ... Nor can his sincerity in 
any way be doubted; or his sympathy for those he would 
persuade to imitate his example, be denied. 

Lincoln, the lawyer-politician, could not help joining a movement 
which, on its face, was concerned with the relief of real human 
misery. Yet he saw in the currents of passion that swirled about 
such a movement many that would exploit that misery rather 
than relieve it. It was impossible to avoid participation in the 
movement without abandoning the lambs to the wolves. If Lincoln 
was compelled by his own rhetoric to class himself among the 
wolves, yet he nonetheless effectively warns those who will listen 
of the danger of wolves. In so doing he plays the role not of 
the wolf but of the shepherd. 

We come now to the argument that the old-school champions 
employed the wrong measures. Such measures are said to be 
wrong for two reasons. The first of these flows directly from the 
character of the "wrong men." "Unapproachable" men employ the 
tactics of "unapproachability." Yet the concept of unapproach- 
ability is subtly narrowed. It was said before that it was possible 
to ascribe narrow and selfish motives to preachers, lawyers, and 
hired agents. But now Lincoln singles out the tactics of denun- 
ciation, the tactics of fanaticism, the special province of the 
preachers. Why such tactics are imprudent we have already seen. 
But he says here they are wrong for another reason: because 
they are unjust. Now Lincoln's announced intention of inquiring 
into the "rational causes" of the present success of the temperance 
movement would, we think, have been sufficiently realized if he 
had limited himself to the instrumental question of how to enlist 
the passions of drinkers in the cause of reform. To say that the 
old temperance movement was unjust is to say not only that it 
employed the wrong means but that it was devoted to the wrong 


end. For justice is not merely the means but the end of civil 

Lincoln's attack on the injustice of the old temperance move- 
ment is elaborated with great care. It is divided into two main 
subsections: the first of these maintains that drinking was sanc- 
tioned by universal public opinion, that such opinion is, in effect, 
the social basis of conscience, and that nothing sanctioned by it 
can justly be condemned; the second subsection, which we shall 
discuss first, is a renewed attack on the tactics of denunciation, 
an attack no longer limited to its ineffectiveness but emphasizing 
its inhumanity and moral baseness. Here is the first part of this 
second subsection: 

Another error . . . into which the old reformers fell, was, 
the position that all habitual drunkards were utterly incor- 
rigible, and therefore must be turned adrift, and damned 
without remedy, in order that the grace of temperance might 
abound to the temperate then, and to all mankind some 
hundred years thereafter. There is in this something so re- 
pugnant to humanity, so uncharitable, so coldblooded and 
feelingless, that it never did, nor ever can enlist the enthusi- 
asm of a popular cause. We could not love the man who 
taught it we could not hear him with patience. The heart 
could not throw open its portals to it. The generous man 
could not adopt it. It could not mix with his blood. It looked 
so fiendishly selfish, so like throwing fathers and brothers 
overboard, to lighten the boat for our security that the 
noble-minded shrank from the manifest meanness of the 

Comparisons are proverbially invidious. But since we know that 
Pilgrim's Progress was one of the books that the young Lincoln 
read assiduously, we cannot help asking how the purportedly 
secular doctrine here attacked differs from the spiritual doctrine 
incorporated in Bunyan's tale of Christian, leaving behind his 
own blood and kind that he might alone attain the Heavenly City? 
Turning from such a speculative question, we observe that, 
whereas Lincoln had employed merciless ridicule to point out 
the ineffectiveness of the tactics of denunciation, 18 when he con- 
templates their moral baseness he himself echoes the language 
of the old-school champions. Lincoln had begun, you will recall, 
by lamenting the absence of "persuasion, kind, unassuming 


persuasion," from the old temperance movement But he "for- 
gets" the sympathetic approach which he recommends toward 
the drunks when he turns to those who saw in drunkenness an 
absence of "grace," which is to say the tokens of unredeemed 
original sin. Lincoln had said, "If you would win a man to your 
cause, first convince him that you are his sincere friend." But he 
speaks of the old reformers as "fiendishly selfish" and says that 
the "noble-minded" shrink from their "manifest meanness." 
Clearly, no friendly intercourse is possible between men who 
regard each other as Lincoln regarded these men. In other words, 
by his example, though not by his precept, Lincoln agrees with 
the old reformers that some form of ostracism or excommunication 
is the just, if not the necessary, response to what appears to us 
as morally abominable. But, while Lincoln does not regard the 
drunks as abominable, his language characterizing the old re- 
formers certainly implies that they are. 

This in turn throws a different light upon the tactics of reform. 
These tactics consist for the most part of "persuasion," as we have 
seen. Persuasion means turning potential friends into actual 
friends. In identifying yourself with the man you would persuade, 
you lead him to identify himself with your cause. But the very 
condition that leads to friendship, love of what is common to 
the friends, involves hate: hate of what is alien to them. For 
we cannot love something without hating what would destroy 
it. If I love someone, I will hate his enemies. Love can be seen 
in part by affirmation but in part also by negation. It was necessary 
even for Jesus to demonstrate his identification with humanity, 
his love of humanity, not only by consorting with sinners and 
Samaritans but by attacking the money-changers in the temple. 

With this our argument appears, not for the first time, to have 
oome full circle. As Lincoln began by ridiculing the tactics of 
denunciation, only to employ them, so now we find him attacking 
the doctrine of incorrigibiHty, of irremediable damnation, yet 
adopting some such doctrine as the tacit premise of the attack. 
For it is the argument of the whole Temperance Address that 
it is our duty, so far as in us lies, to make actual friends of 
potential friends, never to make potential friends into actual 
enemies. Yet Lincoln, according to the natural law of the passions 
he invoked above ("which is God's decree, and can never be 
reversed"), must here be making enemies of the old reformers. 19 
Yet so to do could not be justified, on his principles, unless some 


men were only potential enemies and not potential friends. And 
this could not be true unless in some sense the doctrine of in- 
corrigibility were true. 

We must then inquire whether Lincoln's argument is simply 
self-contradictory or whether there is a valid difference between 
the sense in which Lincoln must have accepted the doctrine of 
incorrigibility and the sense in which he rejected it. To see what 
this difference might be, let us review some passages in which 
comparisons are drawn between the two classes of "incorrigibles." 
The first of these is made by implication in the second paragraph 
of the address, where Lincoln said that the "cause itself seems 
suddenly transformed from a cold abstract theory, to a living, 
breathing, active, and powerful chieftain." What is there implicit 
becomes explicit when Lincoln says: 

They [the Washingtonians] know they [the drunkards] are 
not demons, not even the worst of men. They know that 
generally, they are kind, generous, and charitable, even be- 
yond the example of their more staid and sober neighbors. 
They are practical philanthropists; and they glow with a 
generous and brotherly zeal, that mere theorists are incapable 
of feeling, 

We may descry a current of argument here suggestive of Edmund 
Burke's attack on the French Revolutionists. Lincoln, like Burke, 
opposes "theory" in the name of "practice." But the differences 
are profounder than the similarities. Burke's attack on "theory" 
was so wide-ranging and vituperative as to suggest that every 
attempt, not only that of the disciples of Rousseau, to find a 
metaphysical foundation for the principles of morals and politics 
was either base or foolish. But it would indeed be strange to find 
any real kinship between such anti-theoretical dogmatism and 
the convictions of the man who was to build his political career 
on "an abstract truth, applicable to all men and at all times." 20 
Lincoln, far from attacking rationalism, is in fact basing his whole 
case upon it. For, as we saw, Lincoln attributed the failure of 
the methods of the old school to its ignorance of human nature. 
Moreover, as we also saw, the hypothesis upon which the body 
of the address is based is that the present success of the movement 
must be attributable to "rational causes" and that the central func- 
tion of the address is to supply such knowledge of causality. Now 
knowledge of causality is knowledge of nature, human or non- 


human; it is theoretical knowledge par excellence. However 
practical his object, Lincoln also presents himself in the address 
as a theoretician. The old-school champions are then "mere 
theorists" because they are bad theorists. It is significant and, 
we think, characteristic that in the passage in which Lincoln de- 
nounces the baseness of the old reformers he speaks of this 
baseness as flowing from a "position" which is an "error." Earlier 
he had spoken of drunkards as men whose "failing was [tradition- 
ally] treated as a misfortune, and not as a crime, or even a 
disgrace." True vice is then linked with error, even as drunkenness 
is treated by Lincoln, rather as Aristotle treats incontinence, which 
is not properly called vice. Lincoln's association of vice, as 
distinct from incontinence, with error naturally suggests the con- 
verse: the association of virtue with knowledge. The Socratic 
thesis lurking within the Temperance Address may provide the 
key to much that is enigmatic in it. 

The old reformers' conception of incorrigibility was founded 
upon an interpretation and application of the doctrine of original 
sin. And Lincoln seems to be saying something similar to what 
Rousseau said in the Social Contract: Whoever says, "Outside the 
Church there is no salvation," is a bad citizen and must be cut 
off from the body politic. Lincoln's practical aim, throughout the 
address, is friendship and harmony in civil society. True temper- 
ance is productive of harmony or concord in the soul of society, 
as in that of the individual. Bad passions constantly threaten this 
harmony, yet the attempt to extirpate bad passions, as the old 
reformers did, is self-defeating or worse. For the passion to extir- 
pate, as distinct from the passion to control bad passion, is the 
worst of all possible passions and produces discord and enmity 
more than any other. Love, we said before, involves hate in that 
we cannot love something without hating whatever would destroy 
it. But the principle thus stated carries an implied qualification: 
only the love of destructible things involves us in hatred. The 
ungenerated, the imperishable, the eternal, can be loved without 
ever requiring us to hate. We noted above that, according to 
Aristotle, the man of perfect virtue has contempt for moral 
weaklings. But the contempt of the great-souled man of antiquity 
for his moral inferiors is a sign of a greater passion. The passion 
for wisdom or the reflection in the great-souled man of the passion 
for wisdom is the cause of his superiority, as it is the cause of 
his contempt for his inferiors. For it is the philosopher's passionate 


preoccupation with the eternal, with the divine, as distinct from 
the ephemeral and the merely human, which makes it possible 
for him to love without hating. How far Lincoln carried the impli- 
cations of his own position in his own mind we need not here 
decide; but it is clear that the dogmas of the theological reformers 
made it impossible for them, even in the name of a God who was 
ayaTrrj, to love without hating. That the theological reformers were 
not genuinely preoccupied with the divine is shown by their 
morbid attitude toward those who, as they thought, did not 
stand in the same relation to the divine as they thought they 
stood. They did not derive pleasure so much from the sense of 
their own salvation as from that of the damnation of others. The 
old reformers were the prototype of true intemperance. They did 
not indulge the pleasures of the body; on the contrary, they denied 
themselves these. But they subordinated the pleasures of the 
body not to the true but to the spurious pleasures of the soul. 
The analysis of Lincoln's argument suggests a portrait, as subtle 
as it is profound, of the most dangerous of all political types: the 
ascetic reformer whose underlying motivation is perverted sen- 
suality. It is the Angelo of Shakespeare's Measure for Measure, 
and the asceticism of such men, from Cromwell to Lenin and 
Hitler, insists upon creating a New Jerusalem upon earth, if 
necessary by removing from the world all who cannot live by their 
criterion of saintliness. And this morbid irreconcilability to the 
earthy quality of an earthly existence is inseparably connected, in 
Lincoln's analysis, to the spurious character of their conception of 
the divine and eternal. It is an illicit passion, masked by an in- 
tellectual error as a passion for justice. The pleasure that such 
men derive from the odor of their own sanctity, while it may 
make them proof against ordinary vices, also makes them capable 
of extraordinary crimes. For their supposed self-mastery is an ab- 
surdly intensified egotism, a cosmic vanity. At the same time that 
it denies them the common objects of passion it denies them 
common sympathies. But while it excludes sympathy, it does not 
exclude hatred. Whereas the great-souled man of antiquity was 
conscious of his superiority, and his superiority begot contempt, 
his contempt of moral weaklings was like that of an adult toward 
children and was entirely consistent with personal kindness and 
indulgence, even while exercising firmness in checking their 
The argument just sketched suggests that not sympathy but con- 


tempt is the true attitude toward moral weakness. In contradiction 
to this is the manifest argument employed by Lincoln in favor of 
joining the Washingtonians, a reformed drunkards' society, and 
against the position of the contemptuous non-joiners. 

"But," say some, "we are no drunkards; and we shall not 
acknowledge ourselves such by joining a reformed drunkards' 
society, whatever our influence might be." Surely no Christian 
will adhere to this objection. If they believe, as they profess, 
that Omnipotence condescended to take on himself the form 
of sinful man, and as such, to die an ignominious death for 
their sakes, surely they will not refuse submission to the 
infinitely lesser condescension, for the temporal, and perhaps 
eternal salvation, of a large, erring, and unfortunate class of 
their own fellow creatures. Nor is the condescension very 

It would probably be unfair to lay too great stress on the fact 
that Lincoln says "they" and "their" five times in one sentence 
when referring to Christians. Perhaps Lincoln meant no more by 
this than he meant in 1846 when, a candidate for Congress, he 
was charged by his opponent, a minister, with being an "open 
scoffer at Christianity." This charge Lincoln indignantly denied, 
although acknowledging that he was "not a member of any 
Christian Church." However, whether or not Lincoln included 
himself among those to whom the foregoing argument might be 
addressed, he supplements it with another and different argu- 
ment, which is introduced by the last sentence above. 

In my judgement, such of us as have never fallen victims, 
have been spared more from the absence of appetite, than 
from any mental or moral superiority over those who have. 
Indeed, I believe, if we take habitual drunkards as a class, 
their heads and their hearts will bear an advantageous com- 
parison with those of any other class. There seems ever to 
have been a proneness in the brilliant and the warm-blooded, 
to fall into this vice the demon of intemperance ever seems 
to have delighted in sucking the blood of genius and 

We here see Lincoln employing two lines of argument, which we 
might characterize as arguments from revelation and reason 
respectively. By the first Lincoln addresses Christians through an 


appeal to the Incarnation, showing that if they join the Washing- 
tomans they can regard themselves as imitating not the inebriate 
but Christ. The ambiguity of this argument makes it, however, 
of doubtful value. 21 In the first place, it depends upon the doc- 
trine of man's sinfulness for the Incarnation was necessitated by 
the Falla doctrine which, as we have seen, Lincoln treats else- 
where as an obstacle to that knowledge of human nature which 
would be sufficient of itself to effect the work of moral reform. 
But we may also be permitted to doubt its edifying character 
even within the context of the theology it invokes. Would those 
who joined for the motive here suggested imitate Jesus in any 
spiritual sense? It is to be presumed that Jesus identified himself 
with sinful humanity from compassion, from love. But would Lin- 
coln's addressees do as much? In taking Jesus as their model, 
would they not in fact overcome their repugnance to what was 
below them by identifying themselves with what was above? 
Would not pride, rather than compassion, be their motive? And 
would not the act of condescension intensify, rather than attenu- 
ate, their sense of superiority? It seems to us that the condescen- 
sion of "Christians" who thus joined the Washingtonians, not out 
of spontaneous good will, but from a deliberate decision to mortify 
their feelings, would have been "positively insufferable." 22 In- 
deed, such condescension would seem to be the breeding ground 
of precisely that spiritual arrogance which Lincoln so much de- 
plored in the old reformers. The attempt to overcome that natural 
contempt which flowed from the natural sense of superiority of 
the morally strong for the morally weak would then lead only 
to an unnatural contempt. In short, the appeal here to revelation, 
apart from the fact that it hardly fits into the category of "rational 
causality" into which the body of the speech is designed to fall, 
would overcome the attitude of the contemptuous non-joiners by 
making of them even more contemptuous joiners. It could hardly 
contribute to the success of the temperance movement. 23 

Turning to the argument from "reason," we find that it, too, is 
of doubtful value and full of ambiguity. In the first place, does 
it strengthen the argument from Christianity to say that, after all, 
no condescension is involved? If there is no condescension, why 
mention the Incarnation? If the Incarnation is mentioned, why 
doubt the necessity of condescension? Whatever independent 


merits these two arguments have are not enhanced by their 

There is, of course, a large and important truth in Lincoln's 
assertion that there is a proneness to intemperance in the blood 
of "genius and generosity," but the inferences which he appears to 
draw do not seem to be correct. As to the fact, the passions of 
some men do seem to run far stronger than others. Moreover, 
"nothing great is achieved without passion," and the measure of 
a man's greatness is the greatness of the passion which his virtue 
directs toward its proper objects. Yet the powerful appetites 
which "great natures" have are in themselves morally neutral. 
Those who succeed in mastering their appetites, subordinating 
them to the work of virtue, are rightly honored and praised. But, 
by the same token, those who fail are doubly blamed: blamed 
for the evil they do, and blamed for the good which they fail 
to do and of which they more than others were capable. 24 To 
exempt men of superior talents from blame because their tempta- 
tion to self-indulgence is greater would be to destroy the ground 
for the praise of those who overcome temptation. One exception, 
or rather qualification, to the foregoing criticism may be made. 
There are situations or circumstances which test a man's virtue 
beyond anything that virtue itself could anticipate or withstand. 
From this it is that tragedy results. The catastrophe of a Macbeth, 
a Lear, or an Othello is beyond mere moral condemnation. Be- 
cause not even a man of the highest virtue can feel assurance 
that he would be proof against the slips that led to their falls; 
he can feel pity, terror, and horror at their fate but not contempt 
or the indignation that betokens a sense of superiority. This 
suggests the wisdom of the author of the Nicamachean Ethics, 
in replacing (in Book VII) the simple antithesis of virtue-vice 
with the wider horizon which includes heroic virtue and bestiality. 
Within the sphere of virtue-vice, praise and blame imply superi- 
ority and inferiority. But there is a region, beyond that embraced 
by virtue, in which failure does not necessarily involve blame or 
inferiority. 25 However, to treat the Washingtonians as tragic 
heroes could only be an act of cosmic condescension or Olympian 

Lincoln's argument in the passage under consideration partakes, 
albeit on a different level, of the same tacit irony which we saw 
in the Gettysburg Address, when he said that the world would 
Tittle note nor long remember." When Lincoln says here that "such 


of us as have never fallen victims, have been spared more from 
absence of appetite," he says what was literally true of himself 
in respect to whisky, but not to a far more dangerous intoxicant. 
We have heard Lincoln, in the Lyceum speech, warn of a passion, 
as naturally powerful in his own blood as in that of any man, 
which "thirsts and burns for distinction." The passion for political 
fame might be gratified as Caesar, Alexander, or Napoleon grati- 
fied it, by destroying republics; or it might be gratified as our 
Founding Fathers did, by constructive works, such as find- 
ing a "solution of the long-mooted problem, as to the capability 
of man to govern himself." In the earlier speech Lincoln had 
indicated that he regarded himself as the heir of the work of 
the Founding Fathers but that the discharge of his trust might 
require virtue transcending even that of the Founding Fathers. 
For they were lured by the pleasing hope, the fond desire, of 
that immortality of fame which their work in fact achieved for 
them. But Lincoln showed the possibility that their work could 
be preserved only if there were those who, though worthy of 
equal fame, might have to prove this worth by the silent sacrifice 
of fame. But the man who can thus hold even fame in contempt 
must be able to hold the value of human opinion in contempt. He 
must, in a sense, be above mankind. So here, it would seem, Lin- 
coln's indulgent attitude toward moral weakness is not the conde- 
scension of compassion but the condescension of a godlike sense 
of superiority which does not hold other men to a standard which 
it imposes on itself. For Lincoln has already maintained that it 
is rational knowledge which alone can guide a movement which, 
however much of "genius and generosity" there has been in it, 
has nonetheless been largely a child of fortune. But Lincoln has 
also shown us his deliberate refusal to exploit that movement for 
narrow political advantage and his dissociation from those who 
would. The words by which Lincoln classifies himself among those 
whose "virtue" is due to lack of temptation are but symptomatic 
of that larger act of self-denial, to which the whole address is 
witness and which belies those words. 

There is, moreover, little doubt that universal public opinion, 
Lincoln's chief witness against the old reformers in his denuncia- 
tion of their injustice, does not favor his own explicit argument 
in favor of joining a reformed drunkards' society. For the same 
universal opinion which sanctioned the use of intoxicants and re- 
garded its abuse more as a misfortune than a crime also sanctioned 


the exclusion of habitual drunkards from polite society. The 
common-sense view of the matter was neither that of ihe old 
reformers with their theological thunder nor the social and moral 
egalitarianism Lincoln seems to recommend here. One can treat 
drunks, reformed and unreformed, with tolerance and humanity 
and still draw the conventional moral and social distinctions con- 
cerning them. How valid these distinctions are may perhaps be 
better appreciated if we restate Lincoln's argument in more radi- 
cal form. For although the Washingtonians were themselves 
concerned only with one kind of incontinence, their principle 
would apply equally to all. 

By the Washingtonians, this system of consigning the habitual 
drunkard to hopeless ruin, is repudiated. They adopt a more 
enlarged philanthropy . . . They teach hope to ail despair 
to none. As applying to their cause, they deny the doctrine 
of unpardonable sin. As in Christianity it is taught, so in this 
they teach, that 

"While the lamp holds out to burn, 
The vilest sinner may return." 

Since the Gospel also offers thieves and f omicators hope of salva- 
tion, we should, if Lincoln's argument were valid, be as ready 
to join societies of the supposedly reformed among these as of 
reformed drunkards. 26 But I think it is clear, from all that we 
know of the human nature to which Lincoln has recourse for his 
key argument, that this is absurd. That the kingdom of heaven 
will draw no distinction between the salvation achieved by life- 
long sinners and lifelong saints (unless it rejoices more for the 
former than for the latter) is no sufficient ground for rejecting 
the moral and social distinction drawn by natural reason between 
these classes. 27 Universal public opinion sees no contradiction be- 
tween praying in the same church with publicans and sinners 
while abstaining from their company outside of it. There will be 
time enough for that in the life to come. 

We have already given our considered judgment that Lincoln 
did not seriously believe that non-drinkers should join a reformed 
drunkards' society. The movement properly belonged to the 
alcoholics alone, and the intrusion of outsiders, far from bringing 
new success, was bound to make it the game of other ambitions. 
Lincoln was, however, speaking to a reformed drunkards' society. 
When considering all the kindly things he says about the Washing- 


tonians, one must not forget that he is speaking directly to them. 
He could hardly have taken the position that it was a dishonor 
to be one of them. The egalitarianism of the kingdom of heaven 
already existed to a limited extent in the principle of American 
democracy, in which one man had one vote, irrespective of virtue. 
Of this fact Lincoln the politician was prudently aware. Yet Lin- 
coln could have pointed out many other ways in which non- 
drinkers might, by sympathy, generosity, and kindly acts, aid the 
cause of reform. Instead he chose to raise, in an acute form, the 
issue of the necessary proportion between virtue and full member- 
ship in a good society. By his bad arguments he shows how Utopian 
it is that "good" men should be asked to join a society of "inferior" 
men. By this he shows still more the truth of the converse: if 
"good" men are "disqualified" by their goodness from a society 
of their inferiors, how much more true is it that the "inferior" are 
disqualified by their inferiority from a society of the "good"? How 
bad Lincoln must have thought his overt arguments in this section 
we may glean from the testimony of a silent witness: Lincoln 
himself never joined the Washingtonians. 28 In concluding this dis- 
cussion we may then say that the sense of superiority which the 
virtuous man feels toward those of lesser virtue, and which we 
have called, perhaps somewhat harshly, contempt, is not repudi- 
ated by Lincoln. For the hierarchic moral and social distinctions 
to which this sense of superiority gives rise are implicit in the 
consciousness of virtue, a consciousness indispensable to virtue, 
and hence indispensable to the constitution of a good society. 29 

We now return to Lincoln's thematic discussion of the relation 
of justice to universal public opinion. You will recall that Lincoln 
had said that the old-school reformers were unjust in their 
condemnation of drinking because it had been sanctioned by 
general opinion. The argument consisted of three parts. In the 
first Lincoln set forth the evidences of this opinion in the universal 
practice of using intoxicants ( "From the sideboard of the parson, 
down to the ragged pocket of the houseless loafer, it was con- 
stantly found"). In the second he interpreted this opinion from 
the manner in which people referred to both the good and the ill 
which came from drinking (". . . none seemed to think the injury 
arose from the use of a bad thing, but from the abuse of a very 
good thing"). In the third he evaluated such opinion. It is to this 


third part of Lincoln's discussion of the justice of universal opin- 
ion that we now turn. 

The universal sense of mankind, on any subject, is an argu- 
ment, or at least an influence, not easily overcome. The 
success of the argument in favor of the existence of an over- 
ruling Providence, mainly depends upon that sense; and men 
ought not, in justice, to be denounced for yielding to it in 
any case, or for giving it up slowly, especially, where they 
are backed by interest, fixed habits, or burning appetites. 

It will be observed that Lincoln does not say that whatever 
universal public opinion pronounces right is right but rather that 
no one can be justly denounced for following it Clearly Lincoln 
believed that universal public opinion can change (". . . is it won- 
derful that some should think and act now, as att thought and 
acted twenty years ago?") and hence that it can contradict itself. 
But to be capable of transcending such opinion means, in effect, 
to be capable of living without self-contradiction, something cer- 
tainly beyond the power of most men. And no one can be held 
responsible for what is not in his power. 

To understand Lincoln's attachment to public opinion it is 
necessary only to remind ourselves again of the larger meaning 
of his career. This is shadowed forth as well in the Temperance 
Address as in any speech of Lincoln's prior to Gettysburg. 

If the relative grandeur of revolutions shall be estimated by 
the great amount of human misery they alleviate, and the 
small amount they inflict, then indeed, will this be the 
grandest the world shall ever have seen. Of our political 
revolution of '76 we all are justly proud. It has given us a 
degree of political freedom, far exceeding that of any other 
of the nations of the earth. In it the world has found a solu- 
tion of the long-mooted problem, as to the capability of man 
to govern himself. In it was the germ which has vegetated, 
and still is to grow and expand into the universal liberty of 

The revolution of '76 meant, as we all know, the revolution 
dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal. But 
it also meant the revolution which insisted that governments de- 
rive their just powers from the consent of the governed alone. 
And, as the Gettysburg Address was to show, the consent of the 


governed and the opinion of the governed were understood by 
Lincoln to mean the same thing. Yet there is a tension between 
the doctrine of human equality and the requirement that the opin- 
ion of the governed shall rule. In a later chapter we shall propound 
at greater length the significance of this tension in Lincoln's 
thought. For the present we note that equality and consent 
coincide in the agreement that, because men are by nature po- 
litically equal, majority rule is the right way of deciding political 
questions. But the right way of deciding does not necessarily pro- 
duce right decisions. For the majority may even act to destroy 
the basis of its own legitimacy by repudiating the proposition that 
all men are created equal. This, of course, is what Lincoln one 
day believed threatened when, with the repeal of the Missouri 
Compromise and the Dred Scott decision, the nation appeared 
on the verge of turning its back on the Declaration of Independ- 
ence. Without enlightened leadership, capable of enlisting people 
in the service of a principle higher than their own selfish interests, 
a leadership which would prevent them from incorporating 
injustice into those opinions which, by their universality, became 
the foundation of most men's sense of justice, popular government 
would not be worth saving. Yet the attempt to enlist men in the 
service of a higher principle is itself fraught with the gravest 
danger. The old reformers would plant a theocratic seed in the 
heart of reform opinion, a seed which could, in Lincoln's judg- 
ment, choke liberty. But the Washingtonian movement, and all 
movements akin to it, could also lead to the same result. For the 
attempt in a modern democracy to make moral reform a subject 
of partisan politics could be fatal, both to political life and to 
morality. Let us try to understand why this is so. 

First let us observe that Lincoln says that the revolution of '76 
"has found" a solution to the problem of man's capability to govern 
himself. Now the term "self-government" has from antiquity been 
understood in the double sense of referring both to political self- 
government and moral self-government. In the political sense it 
seems rather to be metaphorical, meaning governing and, in turn, 
being governed by others. 80 However, self-rule may be spoken 
of in a sense which is at least partially non-metaphorical when 
applied to morality. For when a man rules his own passions it 
is one part of himself which rules another. When Lincoln speaks 
of the "Happy day, when, all appetites controlled, all passions 
subdued . . . mind, all conquering mind, shall live and move the 


monarch of the world," he is speaking, hyperbole apart, of moral 
virtue. It is not by accident, moreover, that Lincoln refers to the 
rule of the intellect over the passions as a monarchic rule. Man's 
moral freedom is gained by the destruction of equality within the 
soul of the individual, by the total subjection of many passions 
and appetites to one mind. Political freedom, on the contrary, is 
achieved by the overthrow of the subjection of the many to the 
one. Egalitarianism, which is destructive of moral freedom, is in- 
dispensable to political freedom, and vice versa. If, therefore, 
moral reform becomes the object of politics, if politics is "mor- 
alized," so that the emancipation of man, the goal of the political 
revolution, is reinterpreted to mean the regeneration of man, it 
will mean the re-establishment in authority of the monarchic 
principle. Moreover, this authority will be far greater than before, 
because the reintroduction of the monarchic principle, under 
democratic auspices, will introduce a far different despotism than 
that which the revolutions of '76 and '89 overthrew. When the 
people insist that the people become regenerate, when what is 
required is not good behavior but purity, then the requirement 
for participation in political life will have drastically changed. 
For in the work of regeneration only the pure can take part. Once 
a democratic government convinces itself, or permits itself to be 
convinced, that the work of regeneration has been committed to 
it, then it must cut itself off from the contamination of the 
unregenerate. How inescapable is the compulsion to escape the 
contamination of the unregenerate Lincoln's inner argument has 
amply demonstrated. The moralizing of politics in this sense can 
only lead to a secular version of the theocratic despotism which 
Lincoln warned against in the case of the old reformers. Only, 
in the latter case we could discern in the background the despot- 
ism of Cromwell or Massachusetts Bay. In the foreground we can 
discern Lenin and Stalin. 

That Lincoln did not believe in the "moral revolution" which 
he celebrates in such extravagant language at the end of the 
Temperance Address is indicated not only by the excesses of the 
rhetoric. He says, as noted, that the world has already found a 
solution of the problem of self-government in the principles of 
'76. From this germ, he says, "the universal liberty of mankind" 
is "still to grow and expand." Now it was axiomatic to the Found- 
ing Fathers, as it had been to Plato in antiquity, that political 
government was necessary only because and in so far as the pas- 


sions, the requirements of the body, played a role in human 
motivation. ". . . what is government," wrote Hamilton and 
Madison, "but the greatest of all reflections on human nature? If 
men were angels, no government would be necessary." And what 
was an angel but a being ruled by mind, because his substance 
was purely intellectual? If the day which Lincoln hails ever came, 
when "all matters subjected," mind alone ruled, then men would 
indeed be angelic, political government would be at an end, and 
the state would wither away. If political government were thus 
essentially supererogatory, Lincoln could never have regarded the 
revolution of '76 as decisive for the problem of self-government. 
He would, like Marx, have regarded it only as a preparation for 
the true revolution. 

It will be recalled that Lincoln spoke, a bare twenty years ear- 
lier, of a universal public opinion as favorable to the practice of 
using intoxicating drink. This, it should be noted, leaves a genera- 
tion to spare, between 1776 and 1842. The pristine age of political 
freedom was wholly unconcerned with what is now called by Lin- 
coln the moral revolution. Lincoln ends the Temperance Address 
with a dazzling invocation of the name of Washington, "the 
mightiest name of earth long since mightiest in the cause of civil 
liberty; still mightiest in moral reformation." If we had any doubt 
that the revolution of '76, which occurred by Lincoln's chronology 
forty-six years before the temperance revolution began, had 
solved the moral problem of self-government, so far as that prob- 
lem can be solved by political action, this should put it to rest. 
For if Washington's name is "still mightiest in moral reformation," 
then it was mightiest before the temperance revolution began. If 
the Washingtonians, appropriating the name of the Father of their 
country, had added to his fame, it would have been "now 
mightiest in moral reformation." But the work of moral reform 
undertaken since the revolutionary era, of which the temperance 
movement was symptomatic, was not viewed by Lincoln as repre- 
senting any advance upon the work of the Founders. 

The age which gave birth to both the temperance and abolition 
movements was an age of optimism, of utopianism, of impatience 
with the imperfections of man's state. The era ushered in by the 
Declaration of Independence was looked upon by many not as 
the consummation of the long struggle for political freedom, and 
against feudalism and superstition, but as an invitation to wage 


total war against the imperfections of the human condition* For 
Lincoln too the Declaration was a promise as well as an achieve- 
ment. The doctrine of human equality, the idea that all should 
have an equal chance in the pursuit of happiness, expressed an 
aspiration toward which human life must ever struggle. But Lin- 
coln also saw in the requirement of consent a requirement that 
that struggle must ever come to terms with the actual conditions 
of human imperfection, ignorance, and fallibility. To think that 
we can not only safeguard ourselves from tyranny but rid our- 
selves of folly would have been regarded by him as the greatest 

The mid-nineteenth century was gripped by the idea of 
progress and the assurance that the later age would be the best. 
The dangerous delusion was taking hold of men's minds that, since 
the upward direction of social change was assured, success would 
ever trammel up the consequences of evil means. It was no longer 
necessary to restrain one's impatience in dealing with evil. If 
the cause was right, everything could be permitted. Lincoln, to 
the extent that he was Utopian, was Utopian rather in the manner 
of the ancients, placing the golden age not in the future but in 
the past. He constantly found that "we are not what our fathers 
were." His later struggle to restore our "ancient faith" that "all 
men are created equal" is sufficiently well known. In the Tem- 
perance Address we see a paradigm of that coming struggle. We 
see, moreover, a diagnosis of the totalitarian impulse within the 
heart of modern egalitarianism of surpassing brilliance. 

Part IV 


Chapter XI 

The Legal Tendency toward Slavery 

THERE is no better illustration of the moral confusion in contem- 
porary historical literature on the Lincoln-Douglas debates than 
Allan Nevins's conflicting judgments concerning the repeal of the 
Missouri Compromise. In his chapter on the Kansas-Nebraska Act 
he bitterly condemns Douglas, as we have seen, as a man of dim 
moral perceptions who, feeling no repugnance for slavery himself, 
could not fathom the depths of anti-slavery feeling in the free 
states. However, in the final chapter of his four massive volumes, 
in a review of the causes of the Civil War which gives full 
prominence to the repeal as the first of a series of ill-fated steps, 
Kevins has this to say: "Had an overwhelming majority of Ameri- 
cans been ready to accept the squatter sovereignty principle, this 
law might have proved a statesmanlike stroke; but it was so cer- 
tain that powerful elements North and South would resist it to 
the last that it accentuated strife and confusion." 1 One would have 
thought, from the earlier condemnation of Douglas in effecting 
the repeal, that northern anti-slavery opinion was right in reject- 
ing a doctrine professing indifference to the morality of slavery 
and that, had an overwhelming majority of Americans accepted 
such a position, it would have been not a statesmanlike stroke 
but a calamity. Nevins appears very close to endorsing the view 
that what is acceptable to the overwhelming majority is right, 
that slavery is right where an overwhelming majority desire it 
and wrong where they reject it; in short, that Douglas's popular 
sovereignty was the true doctrine. 


In still another place Nevins observes that "by the late spring 
of 1858, [Douglas] could feel that as a champion of honesty and 
democratic principle he had won a memorable triumph . . . The 
Leoompton constitution was as dead as the Yazoo Fraud. His vic- 
tory was a moral triumph . . ."* But the fight against Lecompton, 
as far as Douglas was concerned, was a fight entirely on a popular- 
sovereignty basis. From the beginning to the end of that fight 
he had asserted that his only aim was to see that the constitution 
of Kansas should be the act and deed of the people of Kansas, 
not the work of outsiders, whether emigrant-aid societies, border 
ruffians, or the President and Congress of the United States, nor, 
of course, a fraudulent minority masquerading as a majority. If 
Douglas's victory was truly a moral triumph, if, that is, it did 
not produce morally desirable results incidentally or accidentally, 
then it was as much a victory over the free-soil opinion which 
had condemned him in 1854 as it was a victory over Buchanan's 
vicious Directory. In truth, Douglas had brought the majority of 
the free-soil North to the point of accepting popular sovereignty, 
and it was precisely this imminent possibility that Abraham Lin- 
coln in the spring of 1858 regarded as the greatest disaster that 
could befall the American people. 

Now let us again examine the question raised in the first chapter 
of this work. Was there no substantial difference between Lin- 
coln's policy and Douglas's at the time of the great debates? 
Would Douglas's policy have produced freedom as surely as 
Lincoln's? Would the country have been as well advised to adopt 
the popular-sovereignty formula for dealing with the slavery 
issue? What confronts us first of all is Lincoln's massive insistence 
that the spread of slavery be halted by a principle that treated 
slavery as wrong everywhere. Was this insistence doctrinaire or 
opportunistic? No one was, in general, more prone than Lincoln 
to follow that dictate of prudence by which one attempts always 
to remove evils without shocking the prejudices that support 
themallowing time and circumstances to wear down the preju- 
dice. We shall see that this was implicit in the gradualism with 
which Lincoln approached all concrete questions of reform. Al- 
though Lincoln thought all sound policy was based on an 
"abstract truth" of universal applicability, he also denounced 
"pernicious abstractions" that set people by the ears for no practi- 
cally good ends. But Douglas's doctrine of allowing the people of 


a territory to decide whether or not they wanted slavery was not, 
in Lincoln's eyes, a formula for avoiding a dispute that had no 
practical consequences. It was a formula for depriving the North 
of its moral armor against slavery extension, extension which was 
threatening to engulf "aH, the States, old as well as newNorth as 
well as South." Professor Kevins has denounced Lincoln's warn- 
ing, in the house divided speech, that "we shall lie down pleasantly 
dreaming that the people of Missouri are on the verge of making 
their State free, and we shall awake to the reality instead that the 
Supreme Court has made Illinois a slave State" as an "absurd 
bogey." 8 Professor Randall, in gentler but firmer language, dis- 
misses Lincoln's fears as "imaginary," "extremely unlikely," and 
based upon "something of a non-sequitur." 4 If these learned gen- 
tlemen are correct, if Lincoln's prediction of the real danger of 
the spread of slavery was simply nonsense, then Lincoln was, as 
we have said, either knave or fool: fool for not seeing what is so 
obvious to the professors, or a monster of wickedness for deliber- 
ately risking the peace of the nation. No defense of Lincoln is 
possible that agrees with this judgment 

The rhetorical heart of the speech 5 with which Lincoln began 
the memorable campaign of 1858 and which gave an intensely 
personal tone to the joint debates is the charge of a conspiracy to 
nationalize slavery between Douglas, Taney, Pierce, and Bu- 
chanan (the four "workmen," "Stephen, Roger, Franklin, and 
James"). The idea of such a plot is treated by Professor Randall 
as "quite fanciful and non-existent," 6 and he apparently regards 
it a charity to Lincoln to pass over his evidence without examina- 
tion. Professor Nevins does take some slight cognizance of the 
evidence supporting Lincoln's charge but regards it as a "partisan 
conclusion," which, "in the eyes of posterity, was pitched on a 
disappointingly low plane." 7 He seems to think Lincoln was 
foolish to give Douglas the opportunity to fling at him the words 
"infamously false" and to declare "that he [Douglas] had never 
exchanged one word with Taney or Pierce on the Dred Scott 
decision and had not spoken of it to Buchanan until long after 
it was made." Nevins seems to have taken Douglas's word and 
unhesitatingly pronounces the accusation "unfounded." 8 Yet in his 
own chapter on the Dred Scott decision, Nevins cites an exten- 
sive correspondence between Judge Catron and President-elect 
Buchanan, a correspondence in which Judge Grier joined and 
which the Chief Justice is said in the correspondence to have seen. 


Whether or not this amounted to collusion is a very fine point 
of casuistry. But if Buchanan and Taney were in communication, 
then it is altogether probable that Pierce was privy to what Bu- 
chanan knew, since, as Lincoln noted, the outgoing President's 
endorsement of the anticipated decision matched the incoming 
President's advance exhortation in favor of it. That there was pre- 
concert on the part of three of the four "conspirators" is heavily 
implied in evidence Professor Nevins himself churns up. 9 In the 
course of the debates Lincoln modified his original charge to the 
extent that he admitted the possibility that Roger, Franklin, and 
James might have used Stephen and that Douglas might have 
been innocent of the intention imputed to the other three, but 
not of the folly of contributing to their ends. 

At the end of the famous exordium, with which the house di- 
vided speech begins, wherein Lincoln warns of a crisis in which 
it shall be decided whether the nation shall follow a path leading 
to the ultimate extinction of slavery or to its legalization through- 
out the nation, he concludes by asking, "Have we no tendency 
to the latter condition?" This sentence is frequently overlooked. 
But it is important to keep in mind that the evidence Lincoln 
assembles in the speech is not so much evidence of a plot as it 
is evidence of a tendency toward a condition in which slavery 
shall be lawful everywhere in the United States. Lincoln was 
careful then and thereafter to point out that he did not know a 
conspiracy existed, only that he believed it. All his evidence, so 
far as a plot is concerned, is circumstantial. Yet the vital question 
which we must ask is not whether the circumstances overwhelm- 
ingly suggest pre-concert among the principals concerned in 
them but whether they overwhelmingly indicate a tendency to- 
ward spreading slavery. Let us ask then first of all whether 
Lincoln was reasonable in alleging such a tendency. If the answer 
is affirmative, we may further inquire whether it was also reasona- 
ble to assign as a cause of the tendency some kind of plot or 

We shall focus attention upon the two massive pillars of 
evidence upon which Lincoln built his case. The first is the 
Kansas-Nebraska Act; the second is the Dred Scott decision. The 
Nebraska bill threw down the congressional prohibition of slavery 
in the remaining Louisiana territory but asserted that it was its 
"true intent and meaning . . . not to legislate slavery into any 


Territory or States, nor to exclude it therefrom; but to leave the 
people thereof perfectly free to form and regulate their domestic 
institutions in their own way, subject only to the Constitution of 
the United States." The ambiguity in the meaning of "subject only 
to the Constitution'* left doubtful the meaning of "perfectly free 
to form and regulate." Lincoln pointed out that opponents of the 
bill (principally Chase) tried to have it amended "so as to ex- 
pressly declare that the people of the Territory may exclude slav- 
ery" but that its friends refused. We remark that in the joint 
debates, when Lincoln reiterated this charge, Douglas replied that 
Chase had only done this to obstruct the progress of the bill, that 
Chase's amendment was unfair because he refused to have it said 
that the people may exclude or introduce slavery. To this Lincoln 
retorted that Douglas knew perfectly well that Chase's principles 
forbade any countenancing of the right of slavery but that Doug- 
las or one of his friends could have moved the addition of the 
words that Chase refused. 

Here we would remind the reader that in his January 4, 1854, 
committee report, analyzed at length above, Douglas had enu- 
merated the conflicting conceptions of the relation of the Constitu- 
tion to slavery in the territories, both in 1850 and 1854. He there 
noted the school which held that the Constitution protected every 
citizen in his right to move into any territory, with any kind of 
property whatever, "and to hold and enjoy the same under the 
sanction of the law." And the Nebraska bill, in its earliest version, 
incorporated the provisions of the 1850 laws which left the de- 
cision of all constitutional questions to the Supreme Court. Thus 
Douglas knew, or at least believed it possible, that the Supreme 
Court might decide that "perfectly free" would not include the 
power to exclude slavery. We cannot say, of course, and Lincoln 
could not justly say, that Douglas knew in 1854 what the Court 
would decide. But the possibility which became a reality in the 
Dred Scott decision was distinctly contemplated in Douglas's 
committee report. For in that 1854 report the view adopted by 
Taney in 1857 is set forth as one of the interpretations of the 
Constitution the Court might, under the terms of the act, be called 
upon to adopt or reject. And Douglas must have known, as it 
was generally known, that in any intersectional issue the Court's 
membership would be markedly weighted toward the South. This 
is an obstacle to the belief that, if Douglas was "used," he was 
used unwittingly. 


The Kansas-Nebraska Act threw down the Missouri Compro- 
mise barrier to slavery extension. It encouraged the inference- 
which, however, its author refused to permit to be made explicit 
in the bill-that slavery might be either introduced or excluded 
by the people who would go to live in the newly organized terri- 
tories. Its author alleged that the purpose of removing the 
congressional restriction was solely to enable these people to be 
"perfectly free." When, however, the great decision in the case of 
Dred Scott came, it turned out that "subject to the Constitution" 
would permit "neither Congress nor a Territorial Legislature . . . 
[to] exclude slavery I" 

According to Lincoln, the most objectionable and danger- 
ous feature of the Dred Scott decision was not that under it 
"'squatter sovereignty' [was] squatted out of existence," because 
the "perfect freedom" of the settlers to form their domestic 
institutions proved to be exactly no freedom at all. The core of 
the Dred Scott decision is found, above all, in the proposition that 
a no negro slave, imported as such from Africa, and no descendant 
of such slave can ever be a citizen of any State, in the sense of 
that term as used in the Constitution of the United States." "This 
point," said Lincoln, "is made in order to deprive the negro, in 
every possible event, of the benefit of that provision of the United 
States Constitution, which declares that 'the citizens of each State 
shall be entitled to all the privileges and immunities of citizens 
in the several States/" Yet the immediate legal use made by the 
Court of the foregoing dictum was of less ultimate significance 
than was the evidence adduced by Taney to support it, evidence 
culminating in the infamous phrase (which Lincoln did not 
quote) that Negroes were "beings of [such] an inferior or- 
der ... that they had no rights which the white man was 
bound to respect." Taney, it is true, did not say that this was 
what he believed to be true; he only insisted it was what 
the Fathers of the Constitution believed and held himself 
bound to give the Constitution such practical meaning as would 
be justified by the intention of the Fathers. The consequence, 
however, was that under the Constitution expounded by Taney 
the Negro had no rights which federal courts would respect. Thus 
the central tenet of the Dred Scott decision agreed perfectly with 
the central tenet of the Kansas-Nebraska Act, according to which 
it was a matter of indifference whether slavery was "voted up or 


voted down." For "voting up" slavery could not be indifferent to 
anyone who believed the Negro was included in the Declaration 
of Independence and was possessed of the same inalienable right 
to liberty as the white man. What Douglas called the " 'sacred 
right of self-government' . . . though expressive of the only right- 
ful basis of any government, was so perverted in [Douglas's] at- 
tempted use of it as to amount to just this: That if any one man, 
choose to enslave another, no third man shall be allowed to 
object/' Certainly there was no power under the Constitution, as 
interpreted by Taney and his coadjutors upon the Court, which 
would enable any man to protect another man from enslavement 
if that man was a Negro. Under the doctrine of the Court, Lincoln 
pointed out, "whether the holding a negro in actual slavery in a 
free State, makes him free, as against the holder, the United States 
courts will not decide, but will leave to be decided by the courts 
of any slave State the negro may be forced into by the master." 
However, when Lincoln said that, according to popular sover- 
eignty, if one man chooses to enslave another, no third man may 
object, he picked his words with utmost precision. For the Negro 
was a man, and Lincoln was entirely satisfied that the logic of 
Douglas's popular sovereignty did not stop with the Negro. If the 
white man did not respect the rights appertaining to the Negro's 
humanity, he equally struck at his own. There was no principle, 
we shall presently hear Lincoln argue, which justified enslaving 
Negroes which did not at the same time justify enslaving whites. 

In what way, however, did Lincoln think that the Dred Scott 
decision might lead to the legalization of slavery in the free states? 
We have already noted Lincoln's opinion that it denied Negroes 
any real protection by federal courts. Thus it deprived them of 
protection from kidnaping into slavery, unless they might find 
that protection in the courts of slave states. But in judging the 
possible future by the known past Lincoln was struck by the 
strange wording in the declaratory section of the Kansas- 
Nebraska Act, wherein was contained the assertion of the inten- 
tion not "to legislate slavery into any Territory or State." What 
business, Lincoln asked, had a mere territorial bill to speak of 
the power of the people of a "State" to introduce or exclude slav- 
ery? Indeed, in view of Douglas's long insistence that the 
Congress of the United States had no power to regulate the 
domestic institutions of a state, he should have been the last man 


to have permitted, much less to have introduced, the implication 
that it had such power. Yet the inference that Congress had such 
a power can hardly be avoided when Congress declares that it 
is its intention not to exercise such a power. 

In the territorial legislation of 1850 Congress had said that 
states formed from Utah and New Mexico might enter the Union 
with or without slavery, as their constitutions might prescribe. 
This, however, was no more than a declaration of how Congress 
would receive applications for statehood from these quarters. In 
like manner, the old Ordinance of '87 and the eighth section of 
the Missouri Act of 1820 were declarations, in effect, first, that 
the territories in question should be free as territories, and, 
secondly, that applications for statehood from the respective areas 
would not be entertained unless slavery was forbidden in the 
constitutions accompanying the requests for admission. Congress 
might use its undoubted power to admit or refuse to admit- 
new states, to lay down conditions of admission. But the principle 
of the equality of the states meant that Congress had no power 
over states already admitted that it did not have over the original 
states. In the Kansas-Nebraska Act, however, it was affirmed that 
the people of any territory or state should be "perfectly free to 
form and regulate their domestic institutions in their own way, 
subject only to the Constitution of the United States." The author 
of the bill refused to have language incorporated in it spelling 
out the meaning of "perfectly free," and he confessed that there 
were opposing interpretations of the Constitution, among which 
he would not decide, some of which would have reduced that 
perfect freedom to a nullity. And now, as noted above, the 
Supreme Court, to which the selfsame measure remanded all such 
questions for decision, had declared such freedom to be a nullity 
by denying that the Constitution to which territories and states 
alike were subject permitted either Congress or territorial legis- 
latures to exclude slavery. But the Court, although it had 
every opportunity to do so in an opinion which has been widely 
regarded as three-quarters obiter dictum did not affirm the 
power of states to exclude slavery. 

Although Professor Nevins utterly disbelieves that slavery 
might have spread to the free states, he concedes that "J uc *g e 
Nelson had hinted at constitutional restraints upon State power 
over slavery." 10 Nelson had indeed insisted that the decision by 
the highest court of Missouri, that Dred Scott's residence in 


Illinois did not make him free, was binding in federal court and 
that the federal court might not question the competence of the 
state court in such a matter. Then he spoke as follows: "In other 
words, except in cases where the power is restrained by the Con- 
stitution of the United States, the law of the State is supreme 
over the subject of slavery within its jurisdiction. As a practical 
illustration of the principle, we may refer to the legislation of 
the free States in abolishing slavery, and prohibiting its introduc- 
tion into their territories. Confessedly, except as restrained by the 
Federal Constitution, they exercised, and rightfully, complete 
and absolute power over the subject." 11 But what did the excep- 
tion mean? Nelson had just asserted that the laws prohibiting 
slavery in Illinois did not make Dred Scott free if he could be 
forced to return to a slave state. Now, clearly, Dred Scott had 
been held in Illinois as a slave. Could the state of Illinois have 
prevented his owner from bringing him into the state? Could 
anyone have gone into an Illinois court and secured a writ of 
habeas corpus for Dred Scott? And, if the Illinois court had 
declared him free, would an appeal carried to the Supreme Court 
have upheld the Illinois court, or would the Taney court have 
again declared that Dred Scott was a slave under Missouri law 
and that either the full faith and credit clause or the privileges 
and immunities clause of Article IV of the Constitution "re- 
strained" the free state from thus depriving a citizen of Missouri 
of his property? We do not know the answers to these questions, 
but, in the light of the fate of the "perfect freedom" subject to 
the Constitution granted to the people of Kansas and Nebraska 
by the territorial act of 1854, can it be wondered that Lincoln 
was suspicious of Nelson's "except as restrained by the Federal 
Constitution"? Indeed, did not Nelson's exception, in the light 
of this history, raise precisely the same degree and kind of doubt 
concerning the constitutional powers of the states that Douglas's 
original report raised concerning the powers of Congress in the 

The Dred Scott decision had pronounced the eighth section 
of the Missouri Act of 1820 unconstitutional by denying that 
Congress had power to forbid slavery in any territory acquired 
as the common property of the nation. We have already observed 
that in 1820 "Monroe and all the cabinet [including John Quincy 
Adams and John Calhoun] agreed that Congress could prohibit 


slavery in a territory." 12 It is safe to say that, prior to the sharp 
turn by the South toward the defense of slavery as a "positive 
good" in the 1830*8, it would have been difficult to have found 
anyone, even among the strict constructionists, who doubted the 
power of Congress over slavery in the territories. The Taney 
decision denied the validity of a law which had stood upon the 
statutes of the country for thirty-four years, a law which Douglas 
himself in 1849 had described as having an origin akin to that of 
the Constitution, canonized in the hearts of the American people, 
and as a sacred thing which no ruthless hand would ever be 
reckless enough to disturb. But it did more. It denied that the 
first Congress which sat under the Constitution and which had 
re-enacted the Ordinance of '87the ordinance which had origi- 
nally been drafted by Jefferson and which had forbidden slavery 
in the old Northwest Territory had acted within the limits of 
its constitutional competencel In this Congress, as Lincoln was 
to point out in the Cooper Union speech, there were sixteen of 
the thirty-nine signers of the Constitution, including James 
Madison, and the measure "passed both branches without yeas 
and nays, which is equivalent to unanimous passage." 13 It was 
signed by President Washington, who did not, so far as we know, 
have any doubt as to its constitutionality. Taney's argument ex- 
plaining away the congressional prohibition of slavery in the 
old Northwest is so tortured that it would require at least a chap- 
ter to trace its many involutions. We will quote a single sentence, 
however, which should suffice for present purposes: "It appears, 
therefore, that this Congress regarded the purposes to which the 
land in this territory was to be applied, and the form of govern- 
ment and principles of jurisprudence which were to prevail there, 
while it remained in the territorial state, as already determined 
on by the States when they had full power and fight to make 
the decision; and that the new government, having received it 
in this condition, ought to carry substantially into effect the plans 
and principles which had been previously adopted by the States, 
and which no doubt the States anticipated when they surren- 
dered their power to the new government." 14 When Taney speaks 
of the previous action of the states, he refers to their joint action 
under the Articles of Confederation. In short, Taney attempts to 
justify the action of the first Congress, in adopting a law en- 
forcing the slavery restriction in the Northwest Territory, on the 
assumption that the Congress under the Articles of Confederation 


had greater power to govern territory than had the Congress under 
the Constitution. We will not attempt to demonstrate, as Lincoln 
hardly thought it worth demonstrating, that the Fathers of the 
Constitution did not believe they were establishing a government 
in any point less competent than that which subsisted under the 
Articles. And if the action of the first Congress, which re-enacted 
the Northwest Ordinance, was such a refined point of construction 
as Taney makes it seem, it could hardly have passed, as Lincoln 
notes, without yeas and nays. 15 

To the foregoing we would also add that the case of Dred 
Scott v. Sandford was the second in which the Supreme Court 
had held invalid an act of Congress, the only other being that 
of Marbury v. Madison, decided in 1803. But the case of Marbury 
v. Madison was a far less unequivocal exercise of what is now 
called judicial review. For Marshall had denied that Congress 
had the right to add to the original jurisdiction of the Supreme 
Court; he was insisting on the right of the Court to decide 
the meaning of the grant of power to it in the Constitution. It 
was not dear beyond a doubt that he asserted an equal power 
to determine the powers granted to the other branches of the 
government by the Constitution. In the course of the joint de- 
bates, Lincoln cited both Jefferson and Jackson to the effect that 
the policy of the United States government, on political ques- 
tions, might not be established by the judges. Jackson had repeat- 
edly refused to accept the opinion of the high court on the 
constitutionality of the Bank of the United States as binding on 
himself. Each officer of the Constitution is sworn to uphold it 
as he understands it, Jackson had said. Although Marshall had 
in the Marbury case used broad language to defend the invalida- 
tion of a very narrow area of legislation, the question involved 
in the case was, from a political standpoint, moot. Taney's 
decision had a vastly different bearing. The demand for the 
restoration of the Missouri Compromise slavery restriction was at 
that time the only real unifying force in the Republican party, 
the absolute sine qua non of its continued political existence. 
The election of 1856 had revealed that the Democratic party 
was now a minority party in the nation as far as the presidential 
vote was concerned. The Whig and Know-Nothing parties were 
breaking up rapidly, and it was highly probable that the Re- 
publican party would become the majority party in the not very 
distant future. The Republican party appeared to be on the 


threshold of overthrowing the hegemony of the Democratic party, 
as neither the Federalists nor Whigs had ever threatened to do. 
The elections of 1856 carried the clear portent of an impending 
realignment of political strength in the nation, such as had not 
happened since 1800. And the decision in the case of Dred Scott, 
coining hard on the heels of those portents, was a declaration 
that the election of a Republican administration would be the 
election of a party dedicated to the overthrow of the Constitution 
i.e., the Constitution as seen by Taney. Such a decision went 
far beyond anything implied in Marshall's opinion in the Marbury 
v. Madison case. It would have been a more just analogy if 
Marshall had declared that the repeal of the Judiciary Act of 
1801 by Jefferson's party had been unconstitutional. Marshall 
never had a fair opportunity to express himself officially on this 
matter, and we cannot know whether he would have dared such 
an opinion. Yet even such a decision would not have been a 
summons to Jefferson to disband his party and hand the reins 
of government back to the Federalists. The Dred Scott decision 
was nothing less than a summons to the Republicans to disband. 
In the light of this history it can hardly be doubted that the Dred 
Scott decision was the revolution in constitutional law Lincoln 
asserted it to be and that the acceptance of that decision as 
politically binding would have been as much an abnegation of 
the principles of popular government as were the doctrines of 
nullification and secession. 

Lincoln's ever-repeated theme throughout the debates was that 
in a popular government statutes and decisions are rendered pos- 
sible or impossible of execution by public sentiment. It is in 
reference to such sentiment that legislatures and courts determine 
what they may and may not attempt. Lincoln did not believe 
that Taney's court would have had either the incentive or the 
temerity to pronounce the decision of 1857 ^ ^54- First the 
Missouri Compromise had to be repealed; second, the doctrine 
of popular sovereignty, so called, erected into a campaign plank 
and an election carried under that obscure banner. Next the 
people had to be taught that, in re-electing the Democrats to 
office, they had endorsed the constitutional opinion which had 
repealed die Missouri Compromise and which had looked upon 
the congressional power to restrict slavery in the territories as 
somehow improper, if not positively unlawful. Only when the old 


idea of the moral objectionableness of slavery, an idea enshrined 
in the Missouri Compromise, as it had been earlier enshrined in 
the Northwest Ordinance, had been replaced by the idea of the 
moral indifference of slavery could the Court have attempted 
what it did attempt. Only as the Kansas-Nebraska Act, and the 
party strategy which utilized it to change public sentiment, had in 
a measure succeeded was the Dred Scott decision deemed possi- 
ble of execution and hence worth attempting. It was Lincoln's con- 
tention, therefore, that if the Dred Scott decision could receive 
the endorsement at the polls which the Kansas-Nebraska Act had 
received or, it should be said, of such an appearance of endorse- 
ment as Douglas and Buchanan claimed for it from the results 
of the '56 electionsthen still further revolutions might well be 
in store. Lincoln did not say that another Dred Scott decision 
impended, but he said that the acquiescence of public sentiment 
in the principles of the Dred Scott decision, which struck down 
the power either of Congress or the people of a territory to exclude 
slavery, would lay a firm foundation for another such decision. 
Once the idea of the sacrosanct character of property in slaves 
was firmly established, then indeed there might be another de- 
cision, which would declare that no state had the power to 
prohibit slavery. Such a decision might appear intolerable and 
unenforcible now, Lincoln conceded. But did it appear more 
intolerable and unenforcible than the decision denying Congress 
the right to prohibit slavery in the territories would have appeared 
to Jefferson, Washington, Madison, either of the Adamses, or 
Monroe? If one such change could be effected, why could not 
another? That such a change was in fact definitely prepared by 
the Dred Scott decision Lincoln demonstrated, not in the house 
divided speech, but in the course of the joint debates. 

At Galesburg, on October 7, 1858, Lincoln reinforced his charge 
as to the danger in the Dred Scott decision in the following 

In the second clause of the sixth article ... of the Con- 
stitution of the United States, we find the following language: 
"This Constitution and the laws of the United States which 
shall be made in pursuance thereof; and all treaties made, 
or which shall be made, under the authority of the United 
States, shall be the supreme law of the land; and the judges 
in every State shall be bound thereby, anything in the Con- 


stitution or kws of any State to the contrary notwithstand- 

The essence of the Dred Scott decision is compressed into 
the sentence which I will now read: "Now, as we have already 
said in an earlier part of this opinion, upon a different point, 
the right of property in a slave is distinctly and expressly 
affirmed in the Constitution." I repeat it, "The right of prop- 
erty in a slave is distinctly and expressly affirmed in the 
Constitution!" What is it to be "affirmed" in the Constitution? 
Made firm in the Constitution so made that it cannot be 
separated from the Constitution without breaking the Con- 
stitution; durable as the Constitution, and part of the Consti- 
tution. Now, remembering the provision of the Constitution 
which I have read; affirming that that instrument is the 
supreme law of the land; that the Judges of every State 
shall be bound by it, any law or constitution of any State to 
the contrary notwithstanding; that the right of property in 
a slave is affirmed in that Constitution, is made, formed into, 
and cannot be separated from it without breaking it; durable 
as the instrument; part of the instrument; what follows as 
a short and even syllogistic argument from it? I think it fol- 
lows, and I submit to the consideration of men capable of 
arguing, whether as I state it, in syllogistic form, the argument 
has any fault in it? 

Nothing in the Constitution or laws of any State can destroy 
a right distinctly and expressly affirmed in the Constitution 
of the United States. 

The right of property in a slave is distinctly and expressly 
affirmed in the Constitution of the United States. 

Therefore, nothing in the Constitution or laws of any State 
can destroy the right of property in a slave. 16 

Douglas never met the argument that Lincoln thus presented in 
syllogistic form, and to our knowledge it has not been met by 
anyone who has denied the force of its conclusion. Lincoln said 
he could see no flaw in the reasoning, that the conclusion was 
inescapable, assuming the truth of the premises. The flaw was in 
the premises. "I believe that the right of property in a slave is not 
distinctly and expressly affirmed in the Constitution," 17 he said. 
His third question to Douglas at Freeport had been, "If the 
Supreme Court of the United States shall decide that States can- 
not exclude slavery from their limits, are you in favor of acquiesc- 


ing in, adopting, and following such decision as a rule of political 
action?" 18 And Douglas had replied "that such a thing is not 
possible. It would be an act of moral treason that no man on 
the bench could ever descend to/' 19 Professor Nevins uses almost 
the same language when he calls Lincoln's prediction that the 
Supreme Court might make Illinois a slave state an a absurd 
bogey/' For "no court would have dared such folly/' 20 But, we 
may ask Professor Nevins, even as Lincoln asked Douglas, how 
do we know that the judges who were capable of the Dred Scott 
decision would not have been capable of this additional folly? 
If Taney had dared the major and the minor, why would he not 
have dared the conclusion? It was Lincoln's thesis that the change 
in constitutional law already effected by the Dred Scott decision 
was not notoriously greater than the one which he anticipated 
as a further consequence of the premises it established. Lincoln 
granted that no Court would have yet dared such a folly; what 
he contended was that the premises justifying such a conclusion 
were contained in Taney's Dred Scott decision and, if they re- 
mained fixed in the law as premises, then it was only a matter 
of time until public sentiment, having accustomed itself to the 
premises, would acquiesce in the conclusion. When public senti- 
ment permitted such a decision to be executed, he did not doubt 
that it would be forthcoming. 

Professor Randall, without addressing himself very directly to 
Lincoln's precise syllogism, has also denounced its conclusion. 
"When Lincoln spoke in 1858, his declaration that the Taney 
property doctrine of 1857 might some day lead to a Federal 
imposition of slavery upon all the states, was something of a 
non-sequitur," he writes. "Few constitutional lawyers would con- 
tend that the domain of the fifth amendment included the vastly 
broader field of the fourteenth. That a future Supreme Court 
would ever rule that the Federal government could impose slavery 
upon unwilling states was extremely unlikely. Such a doctrine 
would have been opposed where Northern states prohibited 
slavery and in the South because of state-rights principles." 21 But 
Professor Randall's allegation of a nan sequitur, so far as it is 
meant to apply to Lincoln's syllogism, is open to the following 
objection. The minor premise, which Lincoln drew from Taney's 
opinion, does not rest upon the Fifth Amendment. After the 
sentence Lincoln quoted from the opinion, Taney continued, "The 
right to traffic in it [i.e., slave property], like an ordinary article 


of merchandise and property, was guaranteed to the citizens of 
the United States, in every State that might desire it, for twenty 
years. And the government in express terms is pledged to protect 
it in all future time, if the slave escapes from his owner/' Thus 
it is the first clause of Section 9 of Article I of the Constitution, 
which says that "The migration or importation of such persons 
as any of the States now existing shall think proper to admit, 
shall not be prohibited by the Congress prior to the year one 
thousand eight hundred and eight . . ." and the third clause of 
Section 2 of Article IV, which says, "No person held to service 
or labor in one State, under the laws thereof, escaping into 
another, shall, in consequence of any law or regulation therein, 
be discharged from such service or labor, but shall be delivered 
up on claim of the party to whom such service or labor may 
be due,* which forms the alleged basis of Taney's assertion that 
the right to property in slaves is expressly affirmed in the Con- 
stitution. The portion of Taney's opinion just quoted above 
continues: This is done in plain words too plain to be mis- 
understood. And no word can be found in the Constitution which 
gives Congress greater power over slave property, or which 
entitles property of that kind to less protection than property of 
any other description. The only power conferred is the power 
coupled with the duty of guarding and protecting the owner in 
his rights." Now it is clear that Taney did not mean to infer 
from the purely negative expressions of the Fifth Amendment, 
which prohibit depriving a person of his life, liberty, or property 
without due process of law, the positive duty to guard and protect 
the slaveowners in their rights. Taney had previously given the 
Fifth Amendment as a reason why Congress might not deprive 
men of slave property who had migrated with that property to 
federal territories. But although he says that slave property is 
entitled to no less protection than any other, he does not say 
that it is not entitled to greater protection. We see here the same 
kind of ambiguity as in "subject to the Constitution" or "except 
as restrained by the Federal Constitution." The niche is open, 
as Lincoln said it was, for a still more privileged position for 
slavery. There is no doubt that Taney's expression about "guard- 
ing and protecting slave property gave great impetus to the 
southern demand for a congressional slave axle in the territories, 
a demand which was to split the Democratic party in 1860. For 
the moment we emphasize that Taney's assertion that the Consti- 


tution expressly affirms the right to slave property, and by this 
reason enjoins a duty to protect slave property, rests mainly upon 
a construction of Section 2, Article IV, and does not depend upon 
the Fifth Amendment at all. And this assertion, combined with 
the supremacy clause, certainly does yield, as a logical necessity, 
the conclusion that no state may destroy the right of property 
in a slave. 

However, if the Fifth Amendment were involved in Lincoln's 
syllogism, as it is not, we may still wonder at Randall's assertion 
that "few constitutional lawyers" would include the domain of 
the Fourteenth Amendment in that of the Fifth. Clearly he is 
thinking of lawyers in the mid-twentieth century, but our ques- 
tion concerns the state of constitutional law in 1858, when the 
Fourteenth Amendment had not yet been conceived. The reign- 
ing constitutional opinion, without question, was Barron v. 
Baltimore, delivered by Chief Justice Marshall in 1833. Marshall 
had stated that the Fifth Amendment was intended solely as a 
limitation on the federal government and not upon the states. 
However, this fact by itself cannot tell us what decision would 
have been rendered if a legal test had come twenty-five years 
later. In this connection we cite the opinion of Professor Crosskey, 
in a recent essay on "Constitutional Limitations on State Au- 
thority/' 22 According to his investigations, many lawyers and 
judges, partly from ignorance and partly from a disagreement 
with Marshall's opinion, did not accept it as a binding precedent. 
There arose a long series of cases, of which Crosskey gives a 
partial list, 28 "in which lawyers continued to invoke various pro- 
visions of Amendments II- VIII against the states." "In 1840," he 
writes, "in Holmes v. Jennison, the Barron decision was most 
elaborately challenged in the Supreme Court itself, as erroneous. 
In 1845, the Supreme Court of Illinois, apparently in ignorance 
of the Barron case, observed . . . that the Due Process Clause 
of the Fifth Amendment was 'obligatory upon all the States.' And 
in 1852, the Supreme Court of Georgia denounced the Barron 
decision in no uncertain terms and refused to be bound by it ... 
And though nineteen years had passed since the decision of 
Barron v. Baltimore, the Georgia Court said it was 'aware' the 
question the case had involved was 'still regarded as an unsettled 
one.' >>24 It is not necessary for the purpose of the present argu- 
ment to enter into the merits of Professor Crosskey's broader 
contentions, such as his view that the Fourteenth Amendment 


was intended by its Republican authors to confirm the applica- 
bility of amendments II to VIII to the states, an applicability they 
always had believed (according to Crosskey) to exist. Certainly, 
however, Barren v. Baltimore did not occupy the sacrosanct 
position in public opinion that Douglas in 1849 ascribed to the 
Missouri Compromise. If the pro-slavery impulse could in such a 
short time have accomplished the overthrow of that mighty 
barrier, with the treading under foot of the constitutional opinions 
of the Fathers which had lain at its foundation, why might not 
Barron v. Baltimore have also been overthrown? The record of 
the Supreme Court in the decades after the Civil War in striking 
down state interference with corporate property is notorious. The 
Fourteenth Amendment was, of course, the text upon which the 
Court then delivered its sermons. In the reconstruction era it was 
more convenient for the Republicans to enact new amendments 
than to trust to reinterpretations of old ones. But, had the struggle 
of the fifties gone in favor of the party of Pierce and Buchanan, 
whose administrations were dominated by such men as Jefferson 
Davis and Jacob Thompson, why should it be supposed that 
courts dominated by their appointees would have done less for 
their favorite form of property than Republican courts did for 

Randall says that the South would have opposed Lincoln's 
imaginary new Dred Scott decision because of state-right princi- 
ples. Nothing was more improbable. In the decade before the 
Civil War the South never turned to state-right principles except 
to defend the institution of slavery. If state-right principles were 
sacred to the South, it would not have demanded the rigorous 
fugitive slave law it did. The Constitution says that fugitives "shall 
be delivered up," but it does not say by whom. The clause in 
question is not among the enumerated powers of Congress. There 
is no a priori reason for thinking the delivering up of fugitives 
was a federal and not a state function. And if "state-right princi- 
ples" were principles, in any proper sense, then it was because 
of some conception of the superior virtue of local autonomy. Yet 
the South rejected Douglas as a party leader in 1860 precisely 
because he insisted there ought not to be a federal slave code 
for the territories. 

But Randall also thinks that such a decision would have been 
"opposed where Northern states prohibited slavery." If this as- 
sertion means that a decision legalizing slavery would have been 


opposed where slavery was opposed, it is, of course, true, because 
it is (practically) tautologous. But would there have been 
continued opposition to slavery in the North if the Dred Scott 
decision and the repeal of the Missouri Compromise were allowed 
to stand? Here was the heart of the danger as Lincoln saw it. 
Professors Randall and Nevins, like Douglas himself, believe it 
"worse than folly" to think that slavery could have been extended 
to any of the hitherto free states and territories by any combina- 
tion of legal or political maneuvers. They believe Lincoln was 
contending with a shadow, not substance; that the spread of 
slavery by political means was out of the question, because 
slavery could spread only where it was economically profitable 
and that it had already reached its limits of profitability. We 
shall examine this thesis shortly. For the present we assert that if 
it were accepted as settled legal doctrine that the right to property 
in slaves was "expressly affirmed" in the Constitution, there could 
be no legal barrier to a future decision pronouncing slavery lawful 
in all the states, old as well as new, North as well as South. 

Taney's dictum was a literal untruth: slave property was not 
"expressly" affirmed in the Constitution because the words "slave" 
or "slavery" do not even occur in that document (prior to the 
Thirteenth Amendment). A "person held to service or labor" 
might be an indentured servant as well as a slave. Further, such 
persons are referred to in the Constitution as held not by virtue 
of a right affirmed in the federal Constitution but under the 
laws of a "State." Lincoln repeated over and over ( citing Preston 
Brooks of South Carolina as a witness ) that, when the Constitu- 
tion was framed, the Fathers believed that slavery would some 
day become extinct, and, according to Lincoln (following Clay), 
they deliberately refrained from using language which would 
record the former existence of slavery under it when it had 
vanished. Certainly the Fathers believed that the states had it 
in their power to abolish slavery, yet when Taney spoke of the 
fugitive slave clause as pledging the federal government to pro- 
tect the slaveowner "in all future time," he used language which 
strongly suggests a legal foundation of slavery in the Constitution 
as distinct from the states. In short, a Constitution interpreted 
by judges of Taney's persuasion might mean anything the interests 
of the slave power required it to mean. The only security against 
such interpretations lay in the election of a president who would 
appoint judges of a different persuasion. 

Chapter XII 

The Political Tendency toward Slavery 

THAT there was legal "tendency* toward the spread of slavery 
to all the states we may take as demonstrated Let us ask further 
in what sense this legal tendency constituted a practical or 
political tendency? Let us observe that in the house divided 
speech Lincoln spoke only of slavery becoming lawful" in all 
the states. His careful phraseology indicates, first of all, his 
rejection of Douglas's thesis that the extension or non-extension 
of slavery in America had never been materially affected by 
general prohibitions or permissions of slavery. According to Lin- 
coln, the legalization of slavery was decisively important for its 
extension. He repeatedly cited Henry Clay to the effect that "one 
of the great and just causes of complaint against Great Britain 
by the Colonies, and the best apology we can now make for 
having the institution amongst us," 1 was that the mother country 
had refused to prohibit it and had withheld from the people 
of the colonies the authority to prohibit it for themselves. In 
addition, Lincoln pointed to the circumstantial evidence con- 
nected with the old Northwest Ordinance. Douglas, we have seen, 
ridiculed the notion that this ordinance had decided the freedom 
of the states of Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Wisconsin, and Michigan. 
The settlers who had gone there had decided against slavery 
because they had decided it was not in their interest to have it. 
But why had they so decided? Douglas was driven back on his 
isothennic theory soil and climate made it unprofitable. But, 
Lincoln pointed out, a large part of Kentucky, Virginia, Maryland, 
and Delaware are as far north as parts of Ohio, Indiana, and Illi- 
nois. There was no great difference in soil or climate between the 


left bank and the right bank of the Ohio River, such as to decide 
that slavery would come right up to the river's edge on the one 
side and yet be nowhere seen on the other. There was then no 
east-west boundary in nature, between free soil and slave soil, 
of which the Northwest Ordinance was only a confirmation. Nor 
was there a north-south line. For the state of Missouri stood 
directly to the west of Illinois and shared in two thirds of the 
latitude of that state. Moreover, as an added point we may note 
that the heaviest concentration of slaves in Missouriareas having 
more than 15 per cent slave population was in a line of counties 
extending across the state from a point north of St. Louis. 2 In 
point of latitude most of Missouri's slaves might have been in- 
cluded in Illinois, Indiana, or Ohio. In his Ohio speeches after the 
1858 campaign Lincoln added that Indiana and Ohio had both 
(but particularly Indiana) petitioned Congress to remove or 
suspend the anti-slavery provision of the ordinance, but the Con- 
gress, acting on a report of John Randolph of Virginia, himself a 
slaveholder, had refused. Hence it was not true that the men 
of the territories under the Northwest Ordinance had paid no 
attention to the slavery prohibition. In fact, they had sometimes 
chafed under it. What Douglas's whole argument disregarded was 
the influence the known existence of such a law might have had 
in inducing men hostile to slavery to come to the Northwest and 
in persuading men friendly to it to keep out. 

It is true that in most of the early settlements north of the 
Ohio River there was a preponderance of slave-state immigrants. 
It is also true that the early history of Illinois, Ohio, and Indiana 
is full of struggles between pro- and anti-slavery parties. This 
proves no more than that the simple existence of the Northwest 
Ordinance was not sufficient in itself to decide whether slavery 
would ever be planted in these regions. But can it be doubted 
that the existence of the slavery prohibition weighed in favor of 
eventual freedom? Lincoln knew from personal experience that 
many migrants across the Ohio from the South, like his own family, 
preferred free soil as much as any migrants from New England, 
that they had fled the degrading effects of competition with slave 
labor and came to the Northwest expecting the promise of free 
soil in the Northwest Ordinance to be respected. Further, there 
can be no doubt that many slaveholders must have refrained 
from bringing slaves into the territory because of the fear of losing 
them. And, finally, there is the simple fact that, however tenuous 


it might sometimes be, respect for law as such is a factor in 
determining obedience to it 

During the formative period of the old Northwest public 
sentiment had, broadly speaking, endorsed the moral as well as 
legal competence which had enshrined the slavery prohibition 
in the Northwest Ordinance. It was widely known that Jefferson, 
himself a slaveholding Southerner, had initiated the move for the 
slavery prohibition in the Northwest The pro-slavery settlers had 
then to conduct their political warfare with a heavy presumption, 
compounded of morality and legality, against them. Lincoln's 
argument in favor of the federal restriction of slavery in the 
territories never relied on the effectiveness of law as such. It was 
always an argument in favor of a law as an expression of the moral 
sense of the people. The moral sense which condemned slavery 
naturally demanded a law preventing its extension, and the de- 
mand for the law was simultaneously a demand for the preserva- 
tion of that moral sense. Lincoln was certain, not that the North- 
west Ordinance as such had excluded slavery from the territory 
north of the Ohio, but that the moral condemnation of slavery 
which demanded and was embodied in the ordinance had kept 
it out In the same way Lincoln believed that the Missouri Com- 
promise slavery prohibition was at once both a moral and legal 
condemnation of slavery. The repeal of the Missouri Compromise, 
in Lincoln's eyes, did indeed throw down an important legal 
barrier to slavery. But far more important was the implicit repeal 
of the moral condemnation. It was this repeal which might in 
time spread slavery to the free states as well as to the hitherto 
free territories. 

Professor Randall says that Douglas's program "would inevitably 
have made Kansas free both as a territory by popular sovereignty 
and as a state by constitutional processes." 8 But Randall's mon- 
strous assumption is that popular sovereignty in Kansas would 
have yielded the same result even if the mighty political up- 
heaval which found expression in the Republican party had never 
occurred or at least had never achieved the political effect it did 
achieve. It was opposition to the repeal of the Missouri Com- 
promise which gave birth to the party and which placed ninety- 
odd Republicans in the House of Representatives in the Thirty- 
fifth Congress. In the House, where the Lecompton fraud was 
beaten Douglas could muster just three Democratic votes (in- 


eluding his own) against the Buchanan forces in the Senatethe 
Republicans supplied nearly five votes for every one supplied 
by Douglas Democrats. 4 In other words, Douglas's "success" in 
making popular sovereignty work in Kansas in 1858 and 1861 
depended upon the existence of a party committed to the 
restoration of the Missouri Compromise slavery restriction, a party 
utterly repudiating his version of popular sovereigntyl 

Lincoln's insistence, in the house divided speech, that Douglas 
was no fit leader of a party believing in the superiority of free 
soil to slave soil was directed in large measure to those eastern 
Republicans who rated Douglas's achievement high for having 
led them to victory in the Lecompton fight. But Randall and 
Nevins commit the same error Lincoln imputed to men like 
Greeley. They fail to see that the nerve of the opposition to 
Lecompton was not popular sovereignty but anti-slavery passion. 
And this passion could not be sustained by a policy which didn't 
care whether slavery was 'Voted up or voted down." It was the 
determination that Kansas ought to be free, not that she ought 
to have a constitution embodying the will of Kansans, that ulti- 
mately assured freedom to Kansas. It is trivial that those who 
believed Kansas ought to be free of necessity believed that the 
constitution of Kansas should be the act and deed of Kansans, 
but it is important to realize that the converse is not true. Douglas 
claimed great credit for having fought the Buchaneers on the 
Lecompton fraud, a credit which Professors Randall and Nevins 
give him in unstinted measure. But, said Lincoln, the Lecompton 
dispute was not one of principle but one of fact : one side asserted, 
and the other denied, that the Lecompton Constitution was the 
actual expression of the will of bona fide settlers. Buchanan men, 
Douglas men, Republicans admitted that it should be such an 
expression. "This being so ... is Judge Douglas . . . going to 
spend his life maintaining a principle that nobody on earth op- 
poses? Does he expect to stand up in majestic dignity, and go 
through his apotheosis and become a god, in the maintaining of a 
principle which neither a man nor a mouse in all God's creation is 
opposing?" 5 Yet Lincoln held that the attempted betrayal of 
Kansas by the Lecompton fraud was an outcome of the betrayal 
of principle embodied in the Kansas-Nebraska Act. The repeal 
of the Missouri Compromise was predicated upon the moral in- 
difference of slavery and freedom and hence upon the moral 
indifference of a constitution which expressed the will of Kansans 


because it embodied the equal natural rights of man and one 
which denied these rights by sanctioning slavery. Douglas, like 
Buchanan's pro-slavery advisers (Buchanan himself was but 
a tool), only paid Up service to the principle that Kansas should 
have a constitution of her own free choice. By the time that 
Lecompton became a critical issue, opinion in the free states had 
been so enraged by the aggression originally perpetrated by 
Douglas's own Nebraska bill that it would have been political 
suicide for Douglas to have done aught but resist Lecompton, in 
company with the Republicans. But to have accepted Douglas 
as a leader, because political expediency demanded that he throw 
himself into the work of averting some of the consequences of 
his own mischief, would have been arrant folly. The men who 
opposed slavery in Kansas would have been helpless if there had 
not been men in Congress, Republicans from the free states, with 
the power of their votes to back up the free-soil Kansans. The 
idea that the slavery issue could be left to be decided in the 
territories themselves was demonstrated to be pure illusion by 
the history of Lecompton. If there had been no anti-Nebraska 
party in Congress no Republican party a slave constitution 
would have been fastened upon Kansas, and Douglas could not 
have done a thing about it even if he had wished to. 

Lincoln's contention throughout the debates was, in brief, that 
so long as Congress had the power to admit new states Congress 
would have the decisive voice whether exercised affirmatively or 
negatively as to whether a territory would be free or slave and 
whether it entered the Union free or slave. Douglas's Kansas- 
Nebraska Act left the number of inhabitants required for state- 
hood entirely open, and Congress's discretion in deciding when 
there were enough Kansans to form a state was in itself a lever 
of great power in helping or hindering the contending parties 
in Kansas. It could always decide that the time for statehood was 
ripe whenever the party it wished to help happened to be in 
the ascendant 8 In short, Douglas himself would have been help- 
less against Buchanan in the Thirty-fifth Congress if a party had 
not existed in the Congress, a party with the potentiality of con- 
trolling the national government, which differed with Douglas 
on principle. But to have accepted Douglas as a leader, or to have 
weakened in any way the purpose to restore the Missouri 
Compromise, would have completely disorganized the political 
opposition to the extension of slavery, for it would have stricken 


down the only distinct ground for the independent existence of 
the Republicans. 

For Randall to think it "inevitable" that slavery would not have 
gone into Kansas is to suppose that the same historical effect 
would have followed if the historical cause had been different. 
The existence of the Republican party was a sufficient cause for 
the defeat of Lecompton and the turning back of the pro-slavery 
tide in Kansas. 7 Whether there was present at the same time 
any other cause sufficient to arrest the spread of slavery into 
Kansas remains to be seen. The only other possibility alleged 
then or since concerns the effect of soil, climate, and productions. 
But even granting for the moment the tenability of the eco- 
nomic thesis, according to which slavery would not have proved 
profitable in Kansas, one can only conclude that the Southerners 
who indubitably wished to try slavery in Kansas would in time 
have abandoned it. There is no historical ground whatever for 
asserting the inevitable freedom of Kansas in the immediate 
future certainly none for asserting the freedom of Kansas as a 
territory except on the assumption of the continuing existence 
of such a party as the Republican, committed to the congressional 
prohibition of slavery in the territory. And, again, even granting 
credence to the economic argument, there is no reason to think 
that the process of rooting slavery out of Kansas, if it had ever 
got in, would not have been very long and difficult. Keeping 
slavery out, as Lincoln said repeatedly, was a thousand times 
easier than getting it out. 

It is as certain as anything that can be asserted about the 
Kansas struggle that, without the active vehicle of the Republican 
party to support them, Beecher's bibles would have been an 
arsenal of little worth in the contest with the Blue Lodges and 
their border ruffians. Slaveowners did not, and would not, risk 
their extremely valuable property in Kansas in the turbulent 
conditions of that struggle. Randall notes with emphasis the ab- 
sence of slaves from Kansas in 1858 and 1861 and concludes 
that, because there were none there (to speak of), there would 
not have been any. All his evidence proves, however, is that 
under existing conditions owners did not take them. Owners 
were awaiting the outcome of the struggle. It is simply naive to 
suppose that the vast political effort the South made to establish 
the right to hold slaves in the prairies was one that they never 
expected to exercise. It made all the difference in the world 


whether the anti-slavery migrants to Kansas were men who merely 
thought slavery unprofitable or men who thought slavery a pro- 
found moral and political evil. Men of the former description 
might, in a friendly way, urge slaveowners to return home and 
dispose of their slaves and invest their money in something more 
profitable. Or they might find that they were wrong and take 
a try at slaveowning themselves. Men of the latter description 
might steal their neighbors* slaves or otherwise attempt their 
expropriation. It was the hostility to slavery which alone assured 
such a hostile reception to slaveowners in Kansas, a reception 
that decided most of them to remain in the shelter of ancestral 
slave codes until the issue was decided for them in the halls of 
Congress. Without the Republican party Kansas would not have 
been populated with men so determinedly opposed to slavery, 
and there is no way of knowing how many more slaveowners 
would then have ventured into Kansas. But without the sustained 
determination to restore the Missouri Compromise there would 
have been no Republican party (i.e., no party of that description). 
Popular sovereignty "worked" in Kansas in 1858 not because of 
Douglas but because of the Republicans. 

Professor Randall has written, "By 1858 it was evident that 
slavery in Kansas had no chance. Indeed, the decisive step on 
this matter was taken in the free-state sense on August 2, 1858, 
before the joint debates began." 8 This assertion, however, is pure 
conjecture. Only in retrospect can one say that the rejection of 
Lecompton by the people of Kansas on that date was "decisive." 
No one knew then that the whole weary business might not have 
to be done over again. Thirteen thousand Kansans balloted on 
that August day, rejecting Lecompton by a margin of six to one. 
But in a country as large as Kansas how durable would a margin 
of nine thousand votes prove, particularly if Congress should 
withhold statehood for three, four, or five years? And what would 
prevent another fraudulent minority from attempting the same 
hoax over again, this time with success, if a President pliant to 
the wishes of slaveholders should again use the patronage of 
his administration to bend Congress to his will? There was, in 
fact, no assurance known to any contemporary other than that 
supplied by experience, which was, to repeat, the experience of 
a vital Republican party. And to have gone to sleep on the 
conviction that freedom in Kansas, or anywhere in the world, 
was "inevitable" would have been to take the linchpin from the 


Republican party. The "decisive step" of August 2, 1858, meant a 
crisis for the Republican party, for it meant the replacement of 
a stern and immediate danger with a subtler and longer-term 
danger. Nothing but the sustained sense of danger which Lincoln 
succeeded in driving home to his own cohorts on the hot and 
dusty prairies of that fateful summer preserved the party and 
ultimately assured that the "decisive step" of August 2 would 
be succeeded by other steps in the same direction. When Kansas 
became a free state in 1861, under the operation of Douglas's 
still unaltered Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854, it was not because 
of Douglas that it did so or the foolish Greeley, who had wanted 
Lincoln to withdraw from the Senate race in favor of Douglas 
but because of Lincoln. 

Chapter XIII 

The Intrinsic Evil of the Repeal of the 
Missouri Compromise 

LINCOLN, we have said, believed in the restoration of the Missouri 
Compromise restriction on slavery as a supreme necessity of 
national policy. This necessity did not lie, however, solely or even 
mainly in the efficacy of the restriction as a barrier to slavery in 
such places as Kansas. That Lincoln, in flat contradiction to 
Douglasand to some present-day historians believed such a 
barrier was needed is certain. It was needed because the moral 
and legal opposition to slavery in free territory, and free states 
as well, were inseparable. Professor Randall thinks that the free 
states would not have tolerated a Supreme Court decision legal- 
izing slavery within their borders because they were hostile to 
slavery. Lincoln, of course, would have granted as much, but 
Lincoln did not believe the free states could abandon their insist- 
ence upon the freedom of the territories without losing the root 
of the conviction which was the foundation of their own freedom. 
For the free states to abandon the Missouri Compromise restric- 
tion could only signal a drastic change in the moral attitude 
toward slavery in the free states. Such a change, if it were allowed 
to proceed unchecked, might very well lead in the not-too-distant 
future to the peaceful acceptance of slavery there. We have yet 
to examine the thesis that there was no danger of slavery spread- 
ing to free territories or states because it would not have been 
profitable. For the moment we summarize Lincoln's argument by 
saying that Republican insistence on the maintenance of the legal 
barrier in Kansas and Nebraska was indispensable for maintaining 


the moral fiber of the political resistance to the spread of slavery, 
whether in the territories or the free states. 

We have thus far emphasized the practical importance to Lin- 
coln of keeping alive the question of federal restriction of slavery 
in Kansas and Nebraska. But we would fail completely to grasp 
the dimensions of Lincoln's argument if we limited ourselves to 
these considerations. "If Kansas should sink today, and leave a 
great vacant space in the earth's surface," he said in the course 
of the debates, "this vexed question would still be among us." 1 We 
shall presently see that Lincoln regarded Kansas as no more than 
representative of other territories which might fall prey to slavery 
on the basis of the precedent of Douglas's Nebraska bill, if the 
latter were allowed to stand as a model of territorial law. But 
above and beyond territories, or states, there was a question of 
intrinsic right and wrong which was at the heart of the contro- 
versy. There was the question of whether, as a matter of principle, 
slavery should be tolerated only by necessity where it already 
existed and where the public mind might rest in the belief that 
it was in course of ultimate extinction or whether it might grow, 
spread, and become perpetual. This issue was raised by the re- 
peal. It was an issue which, once raised, naturally took precedence 
over all others. It so took precedence because it involved radically 
different, alternative ways of conceiving the nature and function 
of the whole American polity. It was impossible to raise the 
question which was raised, concerning the status of the humanity 
of the Negro, without at the same time raising an equally vital 
question concerning the status of the humanity of white men. 
It was impossible to deny the Negro the natural rights demanded 
for all men by the Declaration of Independence without denying 
the natural foundation of the rights of white men. And it was 
impossible to change radically the way of conceiving of the white 
man's rights without changing radically the white man's life. Even 
if the legal foundation of American rights had remained the same 
which Lincoln believed impossible the changed conception of 
their extra-legal foundation in "the laws of Nature and of Nature's 
God" would have been catastrophic to him. It would have been 
a change in the inner consciousness of the American citizen 
which would have sapped his moral dignity and have deprived 
him of inner worth, whether any external consequences were to 
ensue or not 


According to Professor Randall, the debates were without 
"significance" because the debaters did not "enter upon the 
practical and substantial results of their contrary opinions." Ran- 
dall implies that opinions are not politically significant except as 
they determine "practical and substantial results." Professor 
Randall may be correct, but his opinion is not Lincoln's. Or per- 
haps we should say that everything turns upon what is taken 
to be "practical and substantial." For Lincoln there was nothing 
more substantially important than whether Americans lived their 
lives believing that all men are created equal or whether they 
did not. For Lincoln the material prosperity of America was 
chiefly valuable as the external sign of inner spiritual health. And 
that healththe qualitative superiority of American life was in- 
extricably and inexorably linked to the tenets of the Declaration 
of Independence. 

There is a view widespread today that the principle of a free 
society is, in itself, neutral with respect to the differences of 
opinion which may divide the citizens. According to this view, 
the processes of constitutional democracy exist for the purpose 
of allowing differing opinions to compete with each other, and 
public policy may stand upon the ground of any opinions, so long 
as these command the support of a constitutional majority. One 
cannot understand Lincoln's policy in the long course of his de- 
bates with Douglas from 1854 until 1860 without realizing that 
it constitutes a categorical denial of this view. Douglas's doctrine 
of popular sovereignty, unclear as it was on many points, was 
nonetheless clear in this: that it conceived of a virtually unre- 
strained right of local majorities to determine the rights of 
minorities and to determine these minority rights according to 
the interests of the majority. It involved a flat repudiation of 
the principle laid down in Jefferson's first inaugural address, "that 
though the will of the majority is in all cases to prevail, that will, 
to be rightful, must be reasonable; that the minority possess their 
equal rights, which equal laws must protect, and to violate which 
would be oppression." This Douglas's doctrine did directly, in 
making the rights of Negroes solely a matter for determination 
by positive law, but indirectly it had the same effect upon the 
rights of white men. It was Lincoln's insistence that this was 
the character of Douglas's doctrine, and that such a doctrine was 
both untrue and immoral, which constituted his central conten- 


tion, both theoretical and practical, in his long exchanges with 

In Lincoln's Peoria speech of 1854 ^ e ^d declared that he 
hated the principle of Douglas's Nebraska bill, a principle which 
acknowledged a right to have slavery wherever men find it in 
their interest to have it. He hated it because of the injustice of 
slavery, because it enabled "the enemies of free institutions, with 
plausibility, to taunt us as hypocrites . . . and especially because 
it forced so many really good men amongst ourselves into an 
open war with the very fundamental principles of civil-liberty 
criticizing the Declaration of Independence, and insisting that 
there is no right principle of action but self-interest." It is not, of 
course, for a free government to legislate true opinion with regard 
to the fundamental principles of civil liberty. But it is certainly 
the task of statesmanship to create conviction in the minds and 
hearts of the citizens with respect to these principles. And that 
man is no friend of free government who flatters the people into 
believing that whatever they wish to have is right and that he 
will abide by their demands, whatever they are. 

At the end of this same Peoria speech Lincoln rebuts a series 
of arguments that Douglas had advanced against him after he 
had given the same speech somewhat earlier at Springfield. 
Among his remarks are the following: 

In the course of my main argument, Judge Douglas inter- 
rupted me to say, that the principle of the Nebraska bill 
was very old; that it originated when God made man and 
placed good and evil before him, allowing him to choose 
for himself, being responsible for the choice he should make. 
At the time I thought this was merely playful; and I an- 
swered it accordingly. But in his reply to me he renewed 
it, as a serious argument In seriousness then, the facts of 
this proposition are not true as stated. God did not place 
good and evil before man, telling him to make his choice. 
On the contrary, he did tell him there was one tree, of the 
fruit of which, he should not eat, upon pain of certain 
death. I should scarcely wish so strong a prohibition against 
slavery in Nebraska. 2 

The condition of man under a free government, according to 
Lincoln, resembled that of man in the Garden of Eden. His 
freedom was conditional conditional upon denying to himself a 


forbidden fruit. That fruit was the alluring pleasure of despotism. 
"As I would not be a slave, so I would not be a mister. This 
expresses my idea of democracy. Whatever differs from this, to 
the extent of the difference, is not democracy," 8 Lincoln wrote 
on the eve of the joint debates. A democratic people must abide 
by certain restraints in order to be a democratic people. The 
moment they cast these off they cease to be democratic, whether 
a change takes place in the outward forms of their political life 
or not. Lincoln said he would not be either slave or master. But 
what was true of Lincoln's will was a reflection of the conviction 
in Lincoln's mind that "all men are created equal." People could 
not be expected long to abstain from the forbidden fruit who did 
not believe that this abstention was in accordance with a higher 
principle than their own pleasure. If the pleasures of freedom 
come into competition with the pleasures of despotism, they can- 
not survive on the basis of their pleasantness alone. That, we have 
seen, was Jefferson's and Lincoln's explicit judgment and it 
would be a rash man who would deny that they were correct. 
Lincoln's analysis of the problem of popular government in the 
Lyceum speech had long convinced him that if the choice of free 
government rested only on the appeal of such government to the 
passions i.e., to the pleasure of the people it would not long 
endure. The Lyceum speech demonstrated how the highest 
ambition of the loftiest souls, hitherto believed capable of gratifi- 
cation only in a monarchic order, might be achieved in the 
perpetuation of a democratic one. It recorded the discovery in 
the soul of "towering genius" that the highest ambition can be 
conceived as consummated only in the highest service, that 
egotism and altruism ultimately coincide in that consciousness of 
superiority which is superiority in the ability to benefit others. 
But what is true of the superior individual is also true of the 
superior nation; and Lincoln argues in the course of his debates 
with Douglas that the freedom of a free people resides above 
all in that consciousness of freedom which is also a consciousness 
of self-imposed restraints. The heart of Lincoln's case for popular 
government is the vindication of the people's cause on the highest 
grounds which had hitherto been claimed for aristocratic forms. 
In the consciousness of a strength which is not abused is a con- 
sciousness of a greater strength, and therewith a greater pride 
and a greater pleasure, than can be known by those who do not 
know how to deny themselves. 


A free popular government, founded upon the doctrine of uni- 
versal human rights, would not guarantee that for every individ- 
ual the rewards of life would always be proportionate to his 
efforts. But it would be the first in which there would be no 
guarantee that for all but a privileged minority the rewards could 
in no event be proportionate to their efforts. It would be the first in 
which there would be no pre-ordained barriers to distributive 
justice. To those who argued that the Negro was an inferior being, 
endowed by nature with lesser gifts of intellect and moral capac- 
ity, Lincoln replied that, if the Negro had been given less, that 
was no reason to take from him the little he had. If he has been 
given little, that little let him enjoy. Lincoln's understanding of 
"equality" is then nothing but distributive justice or proportional 
equality. Every man has the right to labor productively, and he 
has the right to the fruit of his labor. That one man can labor 
more productively than another no more entitles him to the lesser 
man's little than the lesser man is entitled to the greater one's 
much. Every attempt to deny the Negro equality of right, as 
distinct from equality of reward, Lincoln called that "old serpent," 
the root of all despotism, "You work; 111 eat." 

The price of American freedom, of all civil liberty, was fidelity 
to the faith that "all men are created equal." Constancy to this 
was as necessary to the preservation of the paradise of American 
freedom as the obedience of Adam and Eve to God's single pro- 
hibition had been necessary to that other Eden. Both gardens, 
alas, had their temptations. The existence of Negro slavery and 
the discovery of vast profits to be made from it led Americans 
to believe that all men are not created equal, after all, but that 
some are born to serve and some to be served. But let this conclu- 
sion enter, and force and fraud will, in fact, determine who shall 
serve and who shall be served. The mere existence of slavery, 
according to Lincoln, was not a fatal transgression, for the 
American people were not responsible for its introduction- The 
spirit of the Revolution had placed the institution far along the 
road toward ultimate extinction; but the spirit of the Revolution 
had passed, and a new Tight* had dawned. In consenting to the 
extension of slavery the American people had succumbed to 
serpentine temptation. And now Lincoln, no less than Moses or 
the prophets, insisted that a time had come when the question 
had to be answered by every man, "Who is on the Lord's side?" 

Chapter XIV 

The Universal Meaning of the 
Declaration of Independence 

THE long political duel between Stephen A. Douglas and Abra- 
ham Lincoln was above all a struggle to determine the nature of 
the opinion which should form the doctrinal foundation of Ameri- 
can government. No political contest in history was more exclu- 
sively or passionately concerned with the character of the beliefs 
in which the souls of men were to abide. Neither the differences 
which divided Moslem and Christian at the time of the Crusades, 
nor the differences which divided Protestant and Catholic in 
sixteenth-century Europe, nor those which arrayed the crowned 
heads of Europe against the regicides of revolutionary France 
were believed by the warring advocates to be more important to 
their salvation, individually and collectively. Vast practical conse- 
quences flowed from the differences in all cases, but we could 
not understand the meaning of the differences if we did not first 
see them as the men who fought for them saw them, as having 
absolute intrinsic importance, apart from all external conse- 

"Swinging up and down and back and forth across Illinois, mak- 
ing the welkin ring and setting the prairies on fire, Lincoln and 
Douglas debated what? That is the surprising thing," says Pro- 
fessor Randall. 

With all the problems that might have been put before 
the people as proper matter for their consideration in choos- 
ing a senator choice of government servants, immigration, 
the tariff, international policy, promotion of education, west- 


ward extension of railroads, the opening of new lands for 
homesteads, protection against greedy exploitation of those 
lands . . . encouragement to settlers . . . improving the 
condition of factory workers, and alleviating those agrarian 
grievances that were to plague the coming decades with 
such issues facing the country, those two candidates for the 
Senate talked as if there were only one issue. 1 

According to Randall, Lincoln and Douglas ignored any such 
"representative coverage of the problems of mid-century America" 
while confining themselves almost exclusively to the question of 
slavery in the territories. But while slavery in the territories was 
the single practical issue, it was in large measure subordinated in 
the course of the debates. For Lincoln there was, indeed, "only 
one issue," but that issue was whether or not the American people 
should believe that "all men are created equal" in the full extent 
and true significance of that proposition. Lincoln did not believe 
that in concentrating upon this sole and single question he was 
in any sense narrowing and limiting the range of the discussion. 
"Our government," Lincoln said before the Dred Scott decision, 
"rests in public opinion. Whoever can change public opinion, can 
change the government, practically just so much." But public opin- 
ion, according to Lincoln, was not essentially or primarily opinion 
on a long list of individual topics, such as Professor Randall has 
enumerated, nor was it the kind of thing that the Gallup poll 
attempts to measure. "Public opinion, on any subject," said Lin- 
coln, "always has a 'central idea' from which all its minor thoughts 
radiate." And the "'central idea* in our political public opinion, 
at the beginning was, and until recently has continued to be 'the 
equality of men/" 2 For Lincoln, then, to debate public-lands 
policy, or the condition of factory workers, when the question of 
the equality of rights of all the people was in dispute would have 
been utterly inconsequential. Whether the land would be tilled 
by freeholders or slaves, and whether factory workers might be 
permitted to strike, would be vitally affected by a decision 
concerning that "central idea." Until the matter of that central 
idea was settled, all peripheral questions were required, by the 
logic of the situation, to be held in abeyance. 

In the first joint debate, at Ottawa, Lincoln affirmed in the 
strongest language the importance of the contest between himself 
and Douglas, for capturing the public mind. "In this and like com- 
munities," said Lincoln, "public sentiment is everything. With 


public sentiment, nothing can fail; without it, nothing can suc- 
ceed. Consequently, he who molds public sentiment, goes deeper 
than he who enacts statutes or pronounces decisions. He makes 
statutes and decisions possible or impossible to be executed. This 
must be borne in mind, as also the additional fact that Judge 
Douglas is a man of vast influence, so great that it is enough for 
many men to profess to believe anything, when they once find 
out Judge Douglas professes to believe it." 3 These expressions, 
with minor variations, were repeated over and over. The decision 
in the Dred Scott case, as we have already noted, Lincoln did 
not believe would have been "possible . . . to be executed," had 
it not been for the fact that since 1854 Douglas had been inculcat- 
ing in the public mind new "general maxims about liberty," as 
Lincoln put it at Galesburg, maxims such as Douglas's "assertions 
that he 'don't care whether slavery is voted up or voted down;' 
and that 'whoever wants slavery has a right to have it;' that 'upon 
principles of equality it should be allowed to go everywhere;' that 
'there is no inconsistency between free and slave institutions/" 4 

The Kansas-Nebraska Act had said that men might have slavery 
in the territories if they wished to have it, and the Dred Scott 
decision had decided that they might not forbid it if they wished 
to do so, because the Constitution of the United States affirmed 
the right of property in slaves and forbade either Congress or a 
territorial legislature to interfere with that right. The common 
premise of both the act and the decision was, in the words of the 
Chief Justice, that the Negro was an "ordinary article of merchan- 
dise and traffic," that he "might justly and lawfully be reduced 
to slavery," and that he was a being "so far inferior that [he] had 
no rights which the white man was bound to respect." This meant 
that the proposition that "all men are created equal," upon which 
the government of the United States was admittedly founded, 
either could not be understood in its universalistic implications 
or that the Negro could not be admitted to be a man. Lincoln 
controverted the Taney-Douglas premise upon the grounds that it 
was false historically, absurd logically, and immoral politically. 

That the Negro was not a man was something that neither 
Douglas nor Taney would say in so many words; nor was it some- 
thing that either affirmed to be the opinion of the Fathers. Yet 
Lincoln insisted that it was an inescapable implication of their 
denial of the Negro's natural right to freedom. This he demon- 


strated in the Peoria speech of 1854 when ^ e sai( ^ The law which 
forbids the bringing of slaves from Africa; and that which has so 
long forbid taking them to Nebraska, can hardly be distinguished 
on any moral principle." 

Equal justice to the South, it is said, requires us to consent 
to the extending of slavery to new countries. That is to say, 
inasmuch as you do not object to my taking my hog to 
Nebraska, therefore I must not object to you taking your 
slave. Now, I admit this is perfectly logical, if there is no 
difference between hogs and negroes. But while you thus re- 
quire me to deny the humanity of the negro, I wish to ask 
whether you of the south yourselves, have ever been willing 
to do as much? It is kindly provided that of all those who 
come into the world, only a small percentage are natural 
tyrants. That percentage is no larger in the slave states than 
in the free. The great majority, south as well as north, have 
human sympathies, of which they can no more divest them- 
selves than they can of their sensibility to physical pain. 
These sympathies in the bosoms of the southern people, 
manifest in many ways, their sense of the wrong of slavery, 
and their consciousness that, after all, there is humanity in 
the negro. If they deny this, let me address them a few plain 
questions. In 1820 you joined the north, almost unanimously, 
in declaring the African slave trade piracy, and in annexing 
to it the punishment of death. Why did you do this? If you did 
not feel that it was wrong, why did you join in providing that 
men should be hung for it? The practice was no more than 
bringing wild negroes from Africa, to sell to such as would 
buy them. But you never thought of hanging men for catching 
and selling wild horses, wild buffaloes or wild bears. 5 

Lincoln ever maintained that, as there was nothing in logic or 
morals, neither would there long be anything in politics to forbid 
the reopening of the slave trade if the legitimacy of the extension 
of slavery were once accepted by public opinion. If Negroes 
were nothing but an article of commerce, as Taney contended, 
then it was certainly an arbitrary infringement on the right of 
property to compel men to pay upward of fifteen hundred dollars 
for field hands, when they might be bought upon the coast of 
Africa for the price of a red pocket handkerchief. But, in fact, it 
had never been generally believed by Americans that it was just 


and lawful to reduce Negroes to servitude, as the capital punish- 
ment for the slave trade indicated. Moreover, Lincoln continued, 
the man who engaged in the domestic slave trade, the slave 
dealer, was generally despised and held in contempt even in the 

If you are obliged to deal with him, you try to get through 
the job without so much as touching him. It is common with 
you to join hands with the men you meet; but with the slave 
dealer you avoid the ceremony instinctively shrinking from 
the snaky contact . . . Now why is this? You do not so treat 
the man who deals in corn, cattle or tobacco. 

Again, continued Lincoln, there are nearly a half million free 
blacks, worth over two hundred millions of dollars, at the average 
price (in 1854) f ^ ve hundred dollars. 

How comes this vast amount of property to be running 
about without owners? We do not see free horses or free cat- 
tle running at large. How is this? All these free blacks are the 
descendants of slaves, or have been slaves themselves, and 
they would be slaves now, but for something which has 
operated on their white owners, inducing them, at vast pe- 
cuniary sacrifices, to liberate them. What is this something? 
Is there any mistaking it? In all these cases it is your sense 
of justice, and human sympathy, continually telling you, that 
the poor negro has some natural right to himself that those 
who deny it, and make mere merchandise of him, deserve 
kicking, contempt and death. 

Douglas's Nebraska bill, later joined by the Dred Scott decision, 
instituted a "tendency to dehumanize" the Negro, although the 
moral sense of the American people, South as well as North, 
testified to the Negro's humanity, to the moral baseness of treating 
him as "mere merchandise." Before the contest between Lincoln 
and Douglas was finally over, Douglas said in a speech at 
Memphis, as reported by Lincoln in his 1859 Cincinnati speech: 

. . . that while in all contests between the negro and white 
man he was for the white man . . . that in all questions be- 
tween the negro and the crocodile he was for the negro. 6 

This declaration was not made accidentally, said Lincoln; Douglas 
had said the same thing many times during the 1858 campaign, 


although it had not been reported in his speeches then. It 
indicated an equation, according to Lincoln: as the crocodile is 
to the Negro, so is the Negro to the white man. Thus it was a 
calculated attempt to reduce the Negro, from the white man's 
standpoint, to the level of the brute. "As the negro ought to treat 
the crocodile as a beast, so the white man ought to treat the 
negro as a beast." 

The attempt to legitimize the extension of slavery was impossi- 
ble without denying the Negro's humanity or without denying the 
moral right of humanity or both. Taney, in the Dred Scott 
decision, had attempted to escape the moral responsibility for such 
implications by ascribing to the Founding Fathers opinions which 
he (unlike Douglas) could not bring even himself to espouse. 
Then he found in the principle of constitutional responsibility a 
justification for enforcing these opinions. 

No one, we presume, supposes that any change in public 
opinion, or feeling in relation to this unfortunate race . . . 
should induce the Court to give to the words of the Constitu- 
tion a more liberal construction in their favor than they were 
intended to bear when the instrument was framed and 
adopted . . . Any other rule of construction would abrogate 
the judicial character of this court, and make it the mere 
reflex of the popular opinion or passion of the day. 

Lincoln agreed wholeheartedly with the foregoing conception of 
the function of the Supreme Court But he maintained that Taney 
was doing exactly what he denied doing; namely, adopting an 
opinion which had never even been dreamed of until the neces- 
sities of the Democratic party, as indicated by the results of the 
November 1856 elections, had engendered it. In the course of the 
joint debates Lincoln finally gave it as his belief that Taney was 
the first man, and Douglas the second, who had ever denied that 
the Negro was included in the Declaration. The "fixed and 
universal'' opinion from 1776 until 1857 was, in short, almost the 
exact opposite of what the Democratic party, echoing Douglas 
and Taney, now professed and now said that the Fathers had 

At Galesburg, the other day [Lincoln said at Alton], I 
said, in answer to Judge Douglas, that three years ago there 
never had been a man, so far as I knew or believed, in the 

314 THE C^E FOR 

whole world, who had said that the Declaration of Independ- 
ence did not include negroes in the term "aU men", I reassert 
it today. I assert that Judge Douglas and all his friends may 
search 'the whole records of the country, and it will be a 
great matter of astonishment to me if they shall be able to 
find that one human being three years ago had ever uttered 
the astounding sentiment that the term "all men" in the 
Declaration did not include the negro. Do not let me be mis- 
understood. I know that more than three years ago there were 
men who, finding this assertion constantly in the way of their 
schemes to bring about the ascendancy and perpetuation of 
slavery, denied the truth of it. I know that Mr. Calhoun and 
all the politicians of his school denied the truth of the 
Declaration. I know that it ran along in the mouth of some 
Southern men for a period of years, ending at last in that 
shameful, though rather forcible, declaration of Petit of 
Indiana, upon the floor of the United States Senate, that the 
Declaration of Independence was in that respect a "self- 
evident lie,** rather than a self-evident truth. But I say . . . 
that three years ago there never had lived a man who had 
ventured to assail it in the sneaking way of pretending to 
believe it, and then asserting it did not include the negro. 
I believe the first man who ever said it was Chief Justice 
Taney in the Dred Scott case, and the next to him was our 
friend Stephen A. Douglas. And now it has become the 
catchword of the entire party. 7 

While we would not attest, as a matter of historical record, that 
no man had ever said what Douglas and Taney were saying, prior 
to 1857, Lincoln's statement cannot be much of an exaggeration, 
if it is an exaggeration at all. That Washington, Jefferson, Adams, 
Madison, Hamilton, Franklin, Patrick Henry, and all others of 
their general philosophic persuasion understood the Declaration 
in its universalistic sense, and as including the Negro, is beyond 
doubt or cavil. All of them read the Declaration as an expression 
of the sentiments of Locke's Second Treatise of Civil Government, 
wherein many of them had read, almost from childhood, that all 
men are naturally in "a state of perfect freedom to order their 
actions . . . without asking leave, or depending upon the will of 
any other man. A state also of equality, wherein all power and 
jurisdiction is reciprocal, no one having more than another; there 


being nothing more evident than that creatures of the same 
species and rank . . . should also be equal one amongst another 
without subordination or subjection .* The Declaration of 
Independence had said that governments are instituted "to secure 
these rights/' which plainly implied that the security, or enjoy- 
ment, of the rights which are all men's by nature does not follow 
from the fact of their unaHenability. The Revolution was a great 
stroke to better secure the unalienable rights of some men, but, 
still more, it was a promise that all men everywhere might some 
day not merely possess but enjoy their natural rights. This promise 
was to be fulfilled in and through the successful example of a 
government dedicated to the security of the natural rights of the 
men who organized that government, the first government in the 
history of the world so dedicated. If that government had at- 
tempted to secure in their fullness the natural rights of all Ameri- 
cans, not to mention all men everywhere, the experiment of such 
a government would have met disaster before it had been fairly 
attempted. But the inability of the Founders then and there to 
secure the rights of all the men whom they believed possessed 
unalienable rights did not in the least mean that they believed 
that the only people possessed of such rights were those whose 
rights were to be immediately secured. 

"Chief Justice Taney," said Lincoln in his Springfield speech 
on the Dred Scott decision (June 26, 1857), "admits that the lan- 
guage of the Declaration is broad enough to include the whole 
human family, 

but he and Judge Douglas argue that the authors of that 
instrument did not intend to include negroes, by the fact that 
they did not at once, actually place them on the equality 
with the whites. Now this grave argument comes to just 
nothing at all, by the other fact, that they did not at once, 
or ever afterwards, actually place all white people on an 
equality with one another. And this is the staple argument 
of both the Chief Justice and the Senator, for doing this 
obvious violence to the plain, unmistakable language of the 
Declaration. I think the authors of that notable instrument 
intended to include all men, but they did not intend to de- 
clare all men equal in oSL respects, They did not mean to 
say all were equal in color, size, intellect, moral developments, 
or social capacity. They defined with tolerable distinctness, 


in what respects they did consider all men created equal- 
equal in "certain inalienable rights, among which are life, 
liberty, and the pursuit of happiness." This they said, and 
this they meant. They did not mean to assert the obvious un- 
truth, that all men were enjoying that equality, nor yet, that 
they were about to confer it immediately upon them. In fact, 
they had no power to confer such a boon. They meant simply 
to declare the right, so that the enforcement of it might follow 
as fast as circumstances should permit. They meant to set 
up a standard maxim for a free society, which should be 
familiar to all, and revered by all; constantly looked to, 
constantly labored for, and even though never perfectly 
attained, constantly approximated, and therefore constantly 
spreading and deepening its influence, and augmenting the 
happiness and value of life to all people of all colors every- 
where. 8 

We are familiar with Lincoln's conviction of the necessity of 
a "political religion" for the perpetuation of our political institu- 
tions and his tendency, fully matured in the Lyceum speech, but 
finally consummated in the Second Inaugural, to transform the 
American story into the moral elements of the Biblical story. We 
cannot help then perceiving the resemblance, in such expressions 
as "a standard maxim," "familiar to all," "revered by all," and 
"constantly looked to," to the words of the greatest of all lawgivers: 

And these words, which I command thee this day, shall be 
in thine heart: And thou shalt teach them diligently unto 
thy children, and shalt talk of them when thou sittest in 
thine house, and when thou walkest by the way, and when 
thou liest down, and when thou risest up. 

Nor did Lincoln forget the concept of political salvation when, 
in the course of the campaign of 1858, he said (July 10, 1858): 

It is said in one of the admonitions of the Lord, "As your 
Father in Heaven is perfect, be ye also perfect." The Savior, 
I suppose, did not expect that any human creature could 
be as perfect as the Father in Heaven; but he said, "As your 
Father in Heaven is perfect, be ye also perfect." He set that 
up as a standard, and he who did most towards reaching that 
standard, attained the highest degree of moral perfection. So 
I say in relation to the principle that all men are created 


equal, let it be as nearly reached as we can. If we cannot 
give freedom to every creature, let us do nothing that will 
impose slavery upon any other creature. 9 

At this point we must obtrude some critical reflections concern- 
ing the adequacy of Lincoln's assertions with regard to the mean- 
ing of the signers of the Declaration. If we ask, first of all, if 
Lincoln's vindication of the consistency of the Fathers was alto- 
gether accurate from an historical standpoint, the answer, we be- 
lieve, cannot be an unequivocal affirmative. It is true that 
Lincoln's hypothesis as to the meaning of the Declaration is 
consistent with the language of that document and is at least 
superficially consistent with its known philosophic antecedent, 
whereas the interpretation of Douglas and Taney certainly does 
the "obvious violence" that Lincoln asserts that it does. We may 
even supplement Lincoln's indictment by pointing out that Doug- 
las's interpretation transforms the Declaration from a document 
of natural law to one of positive law. Douglas, in his speech on 
the Dred Scott decision, had said, as Lincoln quoted him, that 
when the signers 

declared all men to have been created equal . . . they were 
speaking of British subjects on this continent being equal to 
British subjects born and residing in Great Britain that they 
were entitled to the same inalienable rights . . . The Declara- 
tion was adopted for the purpose of justifying the colonists 
in the eyes of the civilized world in withdrawing their 
allegiance from the British crown, and dissolving their con- 
nection with the mother country. 10 

The last sentence is correct enough as stating one purpose of the 
Declaration. But precisely because the revolutionists appealed to 
the whole civilized world, to men who were under no obligation 
to the laws of Great Britain, they did not affirm their rights as 
Britons but their rights as men, and they appealed not to the 
laws of Britain for justification but to laws common to themselves 
and all those to whom they addressed themselves, to the "laws 
of Nature and of Nature's God." The only logical reconciliation 
of Douglas's statement with the language of the Declaration 
would be by means of the proposition that all true men are by 
nature Britishl Such a proposition might find its place in some 
undiscovered operetta by Gilbert and Sullivan, but we cannot 


imagine the Founding Fathers in the chorus! Still further, the 
very concept of the unalienability of certain rights is incon- 
sistent with the idea of their being rights of British subjects. 
The rights of Britons as Britons were rights conferred by British 
law and hence alienable by the same process which conferred 
them. The King in Parliament might add to them or subtract 
from them; but the rights referred to by the Declaration 
are conceived as properties of man in virtue of his nature and 
hence unalterable by any mortal power. Douglas and Taney were 
indeed shamefully ignorant of the distinction between natural law 
and positive human law, and the obviousness of the violence they 
did to Jefferson's language cannot be affirmed too strongly. 

Yet despite the consistency of Lincoln's alternative rendering of 
the signers' and Founders' meaning, it cannot be endorsed on his- 
torical grounds without some qualification. For in the passages 
just quoted Lincoln treats the proposition that "all men are 
created equal" as a transcendental goal and not as the immanent 
and effective basis of actual political right. And, in so doing, he 
transforms and transcends the original meaning of that proposi- 
tion, although he does not destroy it. His, we might say, is a 
creative interpretation, a subtle preparation for the "new birth of 
freedom." Let us try to understand it more precisely. 

The idea of the equality of all men, within the eighteenth- 
century horizon, was connected with the idea of the state of na- 
ture, a pre-political state in which there was no government, no 
lawful subordination of one man to another man. It was a state 
which was tolerable but only barely so. Because it was but barely 
tolerable, "mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are 
sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to 
which they are accustomed." But because it was tolerable, it was 
preferable to "absolute Despotism," which was intolerable. The 
concept of the state of nature, as a pre-political state, highly 
undesirable, yet tolerable, is among the axiomatic premises of the 
doctrine of the Declaration of Independence. To indicate the de- 
parture that Lincoln's interpretation represents we observe that 
the idea of such a pre-political state plays no significant role in 
his thinking. The only use Lincoln ever made of the expression 
"state of nature" is when he quoted or paraphrased a passage 
from Clay's famous Mendenhall speech. The following is the 
passage, used by Lincoln in his reply to Douglas at Alton: 


I desire no concealment of my opinions in regard to the 
institution of slavery. I look upon it as a great evil and deeply 
lament that we have derived it from the parental govern- 
ment, and from our ancestors. I wish every slave in the 
United States was in the country of his ancestors. But here 
they are; the question is how they can best be dealt with? 
If a state of nature existed and we were about to lay the 
foundation of society, no man would be more strongly op- 
posed than I should be to incorporate the institution of slav- 
ery among its elements. 11 

Lincoln likened Kansas and Nebraska to the state of nature, where 
the political foundations of society were about to be laid. This 
usage, however, is widely different from the idea of the state of 
nature presupposed in the Declaration. Lincoln and Clay presup- 
pose a more or less virgin country and conditions which are more 
or less optimum. They envisage the kind of act of foundation 
portrayed in the dramatic dialogue of Plato's Republic, in which 
reason chooses the "elements" it would incorporate in a "good" 
society. The Lockean state of nature, on the other hand, although 
a normative concept, is normative primarily in a negative way: 
it specifies the conditions under which the right of revolution 
ought to be exercised, and it specifies the purposes for which it 
ought to be exercised. But because the conditions under which 
the right ought to be exercised are very bad conditions (although 
not the worst possible), the purposes for which the right of 
revolution ought to be exercised are minimal rather than maxi- 
mal conditions of human welfare. It is true that these minimal 
conditions, when stated in terms of the political circumstances of 
the thirteen colonies in 1776, do not appear to us today as so 
dreadfully undesirable. What the signers termed absolute despot- 
ismforgetting, for the moment, the powerful but overdrawn 
portrait of the Declaration would have appeared as a paradise 
of freedom to the oppressed humanity of the ages. Yet the fact 
remains that within the range of their experience, and from the 
point of view of their concept of the state of nature, they were 
asserting minimal rights, and they claimed they were absolved 
of their allegiance in the eyes of civilized mankind because of 
the insecurity which they had come to feel at the hands of the 
government of Great Britain. On the other hand, Lincoln's inter- 
pretation of "all men are created equal" is not that it specifies 


the condition of man in a pre-political state, a highly undesirable 
state which marks the point at which men ought to revolt, but 
that it specifies the optimum condition which the human mind 
can envisage. It is a condition toward which men have a duty 
ever to strive, not a condition from which they have a right to 
escape. It is conceived as a political, not a pre-political, condition, 
a condition in whichto the extent that it is realized equality of 
right is secured to every man not by the natural law (which 
governs Locke's state of nature, in which all men are equal) but 
by positive human law. Lincoln's interpretation of human equal- 
ity, as we have already indicated, is that every man had an equal 
right to be treated justly, that just treatment is a matter of in- 
trinsic worth, that a man's rewards from society ought to be 
proportioned to the value of his work and not to any subjective 
liking or disliking. 
In his Springfield speech of July 17, 1858, Lincoln said: 

Certainly the negro is not our equal in color perhaps not 
in many other respects; still, in the right to put into his 
mouth the bread that his own hands have earned, he is the 
equal of every other man, white or black. In pointing out that 
more has been given you, you can not be justified in taking 
away the little which has been given him. All I ask for the 
negro is that if you do not like him, let him alone. If God 
gave him but little, that little let him enjoy. 12 

Or, as he wrote in a fragment which has survived: 

Suppose it is true, that the negro is inferior to the white, 
in the gifts of nature; is it not the exact reverse justice that 
the white should, for that reason, take from the negro, any 
part of the little that has been given him? "Give to him 
that is needy" is the Christian rule of charity; but "Take from 
him that is needy" is the rule of slavery. 18 

According to Lincoln, as we have said, a man's rewards should 
be proportioned to his labor, and this is (or should be) a function 
of his moral and intellectual capacity. Lincoln did not, of course, 
involve himself in any foolish controversy as to whether the Negro 
did or did not have the same capacity as the white man; he 
confined himself to asserting that his claims, whatever they were > 
ought to be determined on the same principle as the white man's. 


This followed from the proposition that all men have an equal 
claim to just treatment and that the Negro was a man. 

To sum up: in the old, predominantly Lockean interpretation 
of the Declaration civil society is constituted by a movement away 
from the state of nature, away from the condition in which 
the equality of all men is actual. But in Lincoln's subtle rein- 
terpretation civil society (i.e., just civil society) is constituted by 
the movement toward a condition in which the equality of men 
is actual. In the older view, which Lincoln shared as far as it 
went, the actual recognition of the equality of all men is really a 
necessary condition of the legitimacy of the claims of the govern- 
ment upon the governed. But it is also a sufficient condition. For 
the language of the Declaration at least permits the view that, 
if the government of King George III had not been as thoroughly 
despotic as it is pretended it actually was, the Revolution might 
not have been justified. In short, the Declaration conceives of just 
government mainly in terms of the relief from oppression. Lincoln 
conceives of just government far more in terms of the requirement 
to achieve justice in the positive sense; indeed, according to Lin- 
coln, the proposition "all men are created equal" is so lofty a de- 
mand that the striving for justice must be an ever-present 
requirement of the human and political condition. While Lincoln 
most assuredly accepted the Declaration in its minimal, revolu- 
tionary meaning, he gave it a new dimension when he insisted 
that it provided a test not merely of legitimate government i.e., 
of government that may command our allegiance because it is not 
despotic but of good and just government i.e., of a government 
which may be loved and revered because it augments "the 
happiness and value of life to all people of all colors everywhere." 

Lincoln's interpretation of "all men are created equal" trans- 
forms that proposition from a pre-political, negative, minimal, and 
merely revolutionary norm, a norm which prescribes what civil 
society ought not to be, into a transcendental affirmation of what 
it ought to be. Lincoln does not, of course, abandon the lower- 
level Lockean- Jeffersonian demands, yet there is visible a tension 
between them and the higher ones upon which he insists. 

The assertion that "all men are created equal" [he says in 
the Dred Scott speech] was of no practical use in effecting 
our separation from Great Britain; and it was placed in the 


Declaration, not for that, but for future use. Its authors meant 
it to be, thank God, it is now proving itself, a stumbling 
block to those who in after times might seek to turn a free 
people back into the hateful paths of despotism. They knew 
the proneness of prosperity to breed tyrants, and they meant 
when such should re-appear in this fair land and commence 
their vocation they should find left for them at least one hard 
nut to crack. 14 

Lincoln was trying to perpetuate a government, Jefferson in 1776 
to overthrow one, and Lincoln clearly has exaggerated Jefferson's 
non-revolutionary purpose. In fact, the equality proposition was 
indispensable to Jefferson in building his case for the right of revo- 
lution upon Lockean ground, but the state-of-nature idea with 
which it was bound up was alien to Lincoln's whole way of think- 
ing. However, Lincoln was probably right when he said that 
Jefferson did intend to make a statement which would have future 
as well as present usefulness, although he may have overstated 
the degree to which such a thought predominated in Jefferson's 
consciousness. Yet there is a difference between the use which 
Jefferson might have intended and the one Lincoln ascribes to 
him. Jefferson was always more concerned to remind the people 
of their rights than of their duties. He emphasized what they 
should demand of their government rather than what they must 
demand of themselves. Jefferson feared above all the usurpations 
which governments might commit if the people became drowsy 
and did not exercise that eternal vigilance which is the price of 
freedom. He thought in terms of a perpetual struggle between 
the governors and the governed, as epitomized in his famous 
epigrammatic assertions, as, "the tree of liberty must be refreshed 
from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants," and 
"that a little rebellion, now and then, is a good thing, and as 
necessary in the political world as storms in the physical." The 
moral horizon of such expressions is markedly different from that 
of Lincoln's Lyceum speech, with its round condemnation of 
lawlessness and its conviction that any lawlessness, in such a 
government as Jefferson himself had helped to found, was an in- 
vitation to mob rule and mob rule the prelude to the failure of 
the entire experiment in popular government. While Lincoln 
never denied the danger of usurpations by the government, he 
placed far more emphasis on the danger of usurpations of a 


lawless people, which might become the usurpations of the 
government in response to popular pressure. Once the govern- 
ment was established upon a popular basis, the great danger, as 
Lincoln saw it, was the corruption of the people. Jefferson tended 
to see the people as sometimes careless of their own rights but 
as primarily motivated only by the desire not to be oppressed. 
Lincoln saw in the people, too, the desire to oppress. The 
Caesarian danger arose because of the coincidence of Caesar's am- 
bitions with the people's desire to oppress; one without the other 
was powerless. 

Jefferson, however, was not wholly unconcerned with the 
possibilities of popular corruption, as shown by his fear of a 
propertyless, urban proletariat and his advocacy of agrarianism 
as a preservative of virtue. Yet Jefferson's position was in this 
respect in hopeless contradiction with itself, in his simultaneous 
advocacy of science and an education which was predominantly 
scientific. For the consequence of science, particularly the em- 
phatically practical science of Jefferson (like that of Franklin), 
was inevitably such an increase in the productive powers of labor 
as would necessitate an ever-growing division of labor, ever more 
commerce, ever improved communications, and the ever-grow- 
ing urbanization and industrialization of America. Jefferson's 
agrarianism was a sheer anachronism from its beginning, a vestig- 
ial attachment to a world he did as much to destroy as any man. 
It was a reliance upon external conditions which could not 
possibly long endure to produce a virtue which he was at least 
occasionally aware was indispensable to preserve the institutions 
he so valued. Jefferson's agrarianism, however, was an ad hoc 
remedy for a defect in his theory, a defect of which he was in a 
confused way conscious, but which he could never overcome. For 
Jefferson's attempt to conceive of a remedy for die people's 
corruption was vitiated by his Lockean horizon. 15 All obli- 
gation within this horizon is conceived in terms of deductions 
from the state of nature, the state in which all men are actually 
equal. In this state, however, in which men have equal and un- 
alienable rights, they have no real duties. The embryonic duties 
which exist in Locke's state of nature are not genuine duties but 
only rules which tell us to avoid doing those things which might 
impel others to injure us. Duties in any meaningful sense arise 
only in civil society and are conceived as logically required if 


civil society is to perform well its function of securing our rights. 
But whether in the state of nature or the state of civil society, 
men are not instructed, on Lockean grounds, to abstain from 
injuring others because it is objectively wrong, but because it is 
foolish: it undermines the security for their own rights. In short, 
there is little beyond an appeal to enlightened self-interest in the 
doctrine of universal equality when conceived in its pristine, 
Lockean form. Whereas for Lincoln, egotism and altruism ulti- 
mately coincide, inasmuch the greatest self-satisfaction is con- 
ceived as service to others; in the ethics just sketched such altruism 
as there is is ultimately reduced to egotism. That the patriotism 
engendered by the struggle for independence gave such an ethics 
a greater dignity than this suggests cannot be gainsaid, any more 
than the dignity of the character of Washington or the idealism 
of Jefferson can be vindicated on such low grounds. Yet it is also 
true that the widespread lack of concern over the moral challenge 
of Negro slavery to the doctrine of universal rights in the Declara- 
tion in the Revolutionary generation can be traced to the 
egotistic quality of these rights in their Lockean formulation. For 
this reason we must concede that Lincoln exaggerated the degree 
in which the men of the Revolution were concerned with the 
freedom of all men. And thus there is some color, although it 
is only the faintest, for Douglas's assertion that the signers would 
have been inconsistent if they had meant to include the Negroes 
in "all men" and then had continued to hold slaves themselves. 
In truth, their principle included the Negroes in "all men," but 
the Negroes' rights did not impose corresponding duties upon the 
white masters. Lincoln, we believe, gave a greater consistency 
and dignity to the position of the signers than was theirs originally. 
Let us try to understand precisely how he did so. 

All men admittedly have a right to liberty by the doctrine of 
the Declaration. But so does every man have a right to life. Now, 
if we conceive these rights as operative within the Lockean state 
of nature, we will immediately see that no man is under any neces- 
sary obligation to respect any other man's rights. For example: 
because I have a right to life, I have a right to kill any man 
whom I have reason to believe might kill me. That is, I have 
no obligation to respect the other man's right to life until he has 
given me adequate pledges that he will not try to kill me. After 
I have received such a pledge I have an obligation to him. But 


I have this obligation then because, and only because, I have a 
prior concern to preserve myself. By respecting his pledge I in- 
crease my own safety. The same holds true of liberty: I have a 
right to liberty, which right permits me to enslave anyone who, 
I fear, might otherwise enslave me, 

Jefferson once remarked, about the Negro's enslavement in 
America, that justice was in one scale and self-preservation in the 
other. Or, as he rhetorically asked on another occasion, shall we 
present our slaves with freedom and a dagger? Jefferson never 
hesitated in his answer: the Negro must continue to be enslaved 
so long as, and to the degree that, his freedom might injure (or, 
what came to the same tiling, might be believed to injure) the 
white man. Lincoln, of course, was never an abolitionist and al- 
ways granted the right of the slave states to continue the institu- 
tion of slavery as long as they felt the kind of dangers that Jefferson 
(in common with most Southerners) avowedly felt. Yet, when 
Lincoln said that the policy of the Founding Fathers was to place 
the institution of slavery where the public mind might rest in the 
belief that it was in course of ultimate extinction, he was also 
stretching their attitude to fit his theory rather than theirs. It would 
have been truer to say that they hoped it was in course of ultimate 
extinction than that they believed it was actually in course of 
extinction. Allan Nevins' observation that "their expectations re- 
garding its termination had been much more equivocal than their 
hopes" is entirely justified. 16 We have quoted Jefferson's views in 
an earlier chapter which show how badly he wobbled on the pros- 
pect of future conditions favorable to Negro liberty. 

To resume the theoretical analysis, we may say that no man, 
from the strictly Lockean standpoint, is under an obligation to 
respect any other man's unalienable rights until that other man 
is necessary to the security of his own rights. Only men bound 
to each other by the social contract are, in a strict sense, bound 
to respect each other's unalienable rights. And so far are they from 
being under the obligation to respect other men's rights that they 
may loll or enslave other men whenever in their judgment this 
adds to their own security. It would also be true, however, that 
the enslaved Negroes always had the right to revolt and to kill 
their masters. But the masters would have had no obligation to 
free them until and unless the Negroes had the physical power 
to make good their freedom. No one has ever expressed more 
clearly or candidly this view of the right of revolution than Lin- 


coin, in his speech on the Mexican War, when he said that "any 
people anywhere, being inclined and having the power, have the 
right to rise up and shake off the existing government, and form 
a new one that suits them better." 17 A people who are so servile 
as to lack the desire for freedom, or who lack the power, do not in 
any practical sense have the right. The "appeal to Heaven," the 
ultima ratio juris, in which Locke's right of revolution culminates, 
and through which the rights to life and liberty alone receive 
their sanction, is the appeal to force. And those who do not have 
force at their disposal have no effective Lockean argument for 
denying the assertion of despotic power over them. 

But if the foregoing is true, what interest did Jefferson and 
those minded like him have in ultimate Negro emancipation or, 
for that matter, in the emancipation of any one whom they could 
profitably enslave? The answer, we believe, may be found (apart 
from the matter of mere moral taste) in the concept of long-run 
as opposed to short-run egotism. The freedom of a free, popular 
republic depends upon the indoctrination of people everywhere 
in their natural, unalienable rights. Security is a matter of freedom 
from oppression at home and freedom from foreign domination. 
The great Enlightenment of the eighteenth century, of which Jef- 
ferson was such an ornament, was famous for nothing more than 
for its cosmopolitanism. And the essence of this cosmopolitanism 
lay in the conviction that only when the rights of man are secured 
everywhere will they attain their maximum security anywhere. It 
was expressed typically in the belief that republican governments 
are unwarlike, because when the government is of the people, 
when those whose blood and treasure pay for wars must decide 
between war and peace, there will be no more aggressive wars, 
no more wars for conquest or dynastic glory. 18 In this vein Jef- 
ferson, in the passage from the Notes on Virginia quoted above, 19 
feared that some day the Negro would rise up to enslave the white 
man. In short, Jefferson really did believe, as did Lincoln, that he 
who would not be a slave ought not to be a master. But the 
Lockean root of Jefferson's conviction the deepest root for Jef- 
ferson's generation regarded this precept as pre-eminently a 
requirement of enlightened self-interest, as a long-run require- 
ment of the security of the rights of the self -regarding, egotistical 
individual. But in the short run, in the foreseeable future, there 
could, from this viewpoint; be no pressing conscientious objection 


to the continued enslavement of those whose slavery was not, but 
whose emancipation would be, a threat to the masters. Jefferson, 
it is true, did, in his eighteenth query, state one further objection 
to slavery. It was that slavery engendered despotic manners, and 
he implies (although he does not state) that such manners are 
inimical to the spirit of free republican institutions. But this argu- 
ment by itself is also a prudential one and is a condemnation of 
slavery more for its effects upon the whites than for its wrong 
to the Negroes. How inadequate it is may be seen by recollecting 
that Burke, in his speech on conciliation with America, observes 
the same effects that Jefferson does and draws the opposite con- 
clusion. 20 

Lincoln's morality then extends the full length of Jefferson's, but 
it also goes further. Jefferson's horizon, with its grounding in 
Locke, saw all commands to respect the rights of others as 
fundamentally hypothetical imperatives: if you do not wish to be 
a slave, then refrain from being a master. Lincoln agreed, but 
he also said in substance: he who wills freedom for himself must 
simultaneously will freedom for others. Lincoln's imperative was 
not only hypothetical; it was categorical as well. Because all men 
by nature have an equal right to justice, all men have an equal 
duty to do justice, wholly irrespective of calculations as to self- 
interest. Or, to put it a little differently, our own happiness, our 
own welfare, cannot be conceived apart from our well-doing, or 
just action, and this well-doing is not merely the adding to our 
own security but the benefiting of others. Civil society, for Lin- 
coln as for Aristotle and Burke, is a partnership "in every virtue 
and in all perfection." And, while our duties to friends and fellow 
citizens take precedence over duties to those who are not friends 
or fellow citizens, the possibility of justice, and of injustice, exists 
in every relationship with every other human being. Indeed, if 
it was not possible to do justice to non-fellow citizens, the pos- 
sibility of justice and friendship with fellow citizens would not 
exist. For civil society is the realization of a potentiality which 
must exist whenever man encounters his fellow, or it is not a 
potentiality anywhere. And that potentiality, for Lincoln, found 
its supreme expression in the proposition that "all men are created 

According to Lincoln, the Douglas-Taney thesis with regard 
to the Negro was historically false. We cannot but pronounce 


Lincoln right and his opponents wrong; yet it should be under- 
stood that Lincoln's affirmation of the Founders' and signers' 
meaning, as distinct from his contradiction of Douglas and Taney, 
is not itself impeccable on purely historical grounds. But if it is 
not impeccable historically, it is superior on logical and moral 
grounds to the doctrine it purports to interpret To what extent 
Lincoln was conscious that his interpretation was "creative" we 
cannot absolutely say. Yet we cannot forget that in the Lyceum 
speech Lincoln warned that the Revolution was supported not 
only by the sense of right but by the passions of the revolutionists, 
both by the base passions of the people of hatred and revenge 
and by the noble but dangerous passion of the leaders for fame 
and distinction. And we cannot help noticing that the Lockean 
interpretation of unalienable rights, which we have sketched, 
ultimately views such rights as reducible to passions. 21 For the 
right to life and liberty is held to be indefeasible in Locke just 
because the passion for life, and for the necessary means thereto, 
is held to be indefeasible. But when Lincoln said, as he repeatedly 
did say in the debates, that Douglas's "Don't care" policy with 
respect to slavery was an absurdity, because it tolerated the notion 
that there was such a thing as a right to do wrong, he super- 
imposed upon the Lockean doctrine of the unalienable right to 
liberty a very different conception of right. The Lockean idea 
of a right to liberty meant that no one can consistently appeal 
to my sense of right to give up my liberty, but it does not mean 
that a man who enslaves another violates the enslaver's sense 
of what is right. Lincoln confounds the meaning of a right, mean- 
ing an indefeasible desire or passion, with what is right, meaning 
an objective state or condition in which justice is done. Lincoln 
does not, however, deny that there are natural rights in the 
Lockean sense; i.e., that there are indefeasible passions which 
entitle all men to reject allegedly moral claims upon them which 
are inconsistent with the gratification of these passions. 22 But 
while the Lyceum speech conceded the adequacy of the notion 
of natural right as the right of the passions, for the purposes of 
the Revolutionary generation, it also denied its future utility. 
"Passion has helped us; but can do so no more . . . Reason . . . 
must furnish all the materials for our future support . . ." From 
Lincoln's 1838 criticism of the Revolution we suspect that he was 
not innocent of the nature of his subsequent "reconstruction" of 
the meaning of the Fathers. For as passion is subjective so is rea- 


son objective. The concept of what is right is the concept of an 
objective condition, a condition discernible by reason. "All I ask 
for the negro is that if you do not like him, let him alone," said 
Lincoln with a pathos which anticipates the war years. But his 
meaning is that the test of right is not how something agrees 
with our passions but how it agrees with a discernment of what 
is due to a man. Right conceived as subjective passion does not 
forbid us to do what is objectively wrong; it only directs us to 
do whatever we deem necessary for our lives and our liberty. 
Right conceived as a state or condition in which every man is 
rendered his due forbids us to dissociate the value to ourselves 
of our own lives and liberties and the value to themselves of 
the lives and liberties of any men who may be affected by our 

Chapter XV 

The Form and Substance of Political 
Freedom in the Modern World 

DOUGLAS'S policy with respect to slavery, we have said in an 
earlier chapter, constituted a kind of agreement to disagree. The 
desirability of such an agreement was predicated, in turn, upon 
his belief that "we exist as a nation only by virtue of the Constitu- 
tion*' and that therefore a scrupulous observance of all constitu- 
tional duties was all that was really necessary for the states and 
sections to live amicably together. Citizens of the several states 
might continue to hold differing opinions on slavery because they 
would abstain from any attempt to frame a joint policy on slavery, 
an attempt which would inevitably produce collision. Lincoln, 
however, categorically denied the whole foundation of this policy, 
because Lincoln denied that we existed as a nation solely, or 
even mainly, by virtue of the Constitution. This denial he was 
to make the affirmative faith of the nation at Gettysburg, when 
"fourscore and seven years ago" carefully placed the birth of the 
nation in the year 1776, not the year 1787. And the life principle 
of the nation was then said to be not the compromises of the 
Constitution which Lincoln, as an honest man, always admitted 
and freely accepted but in the dedication and rededication to 
the equality of all men. The Constitution and the Union might 
be regarded as formal causes of nationhood; although qua forms 
they were certainly destined to metamorphosis: the Union by the 
addition of new states, and the Constitution by amendments. But 
the central proposition of the Declaration was its final cause. It 
was common dedication to this which was the primary constituent 


element in our nationhood, and no change in the final cause was 
possible which would not destroy the nation so constituted. Lin- 
coln's attitude toward the "central idea" of American political 
public opinion, which was also the central constitutive element 
of American nationality, is again suggestive of a central them 
of Aristotle's Politics, In the third book of that work Aristotle 
asks, by virtue of what is it that the identity of a polls is estab- 
lished? It is not because men inhabit a certain place, Aristotle 
says, because a wall could be built around the Peloponnesus but 
that would not make those so embraced fellow citizens. Similarly 
it is not any particular group of citizens, for the citizens who 
comprise a city (we might say nationals who comprise a nation) 
are always changing, like the water in a river. A polis y Aristotle 
says, is a partnership or association, a partnership in a politeia. 
And the politeia is die form of the polls, as the soul is the form 
of the body. 1 Therefore the polls is no longer the same when 
the politeia changes, any more than a chorus is the same when 
the persons who have comprised a tragic chorus now constitute 
a comic chorus. The Greek word politeia has been employed 
because it is usually translated constitution, as in the expression 
American Constitution. But the Constitution is a set of laws, al- 
beit fundamental laws. However, the politeia is not the laws but 
rather the animating principle of the laws, by virtue of which 
the laws are laws of a certain kind. Consequently Aristotle says, 
a The laws should be laid down, and all people do lay them 
down, to suit the potiteiai and not the politeiai to suit the laws." 
This relationship is excellently expressed in a fragmentary writing 
of Lincoln's which has no date and is ascribed to the period after 
the 1858 campaign but before his inauguration. 2 The language 
expresses more concisely and more beautifully the essential argu- 
ment maintained by Lincoln throughout the debates on the 
relationship of the Declaration of Independence to the Constitu- 
tion and Union than anything in his actual speeches. It is a 
meditation upon Proverbs 25; 11: 

All this is not the result of accident. It has a philosophical 
cause. Without the Constitution and the Union, we could 
not have attained the result; but even these, are not the 
primary cause of our great prosperity. There is something 
back of these, entwining itself more closely about the human 
heart That something, is the principle of ^Liberty to aE"-~ 


the principle that clears the path for all gives hope to all 
and, by consequence, enterprize, and industry to all. 

The expression of that principle, in our Declaration of 
Independence, was most happy, and fortunate. Without this, 
as well as with it, we could have declared our independence 
of Great Britain; but without it, we could not, I think, have 
secured our free government, and consequent prosperity. 
No oppressed people will fight, and endure, as our fathers 
did, without the promise of something better, than a mere 
change of masters. 

The assertion of that principle, at that time, was the word, 
"fitly spoken 9 which has proved an "apple of gold" to us. 
The Union, and the Constitution, are the picture of silver, 
subsequently framed around it. The picture was made, not 
to conceal, or destroy the apple; but to adorn, and preserve 
it. The picture was made for the apple not the apple for 
the picture. 

So let us act, that neither picture, or apple shall ever be 
blurred, or bruised or broken. 

That we may so act, we must study, and understand the 
points of danger. 

It would thus be no exaggeration to say that, according to Lincoln, 
the relation of the famous proposition to the Constitution and 
Union corresponded to the relation of soul to body. The breakup 
of the Union would have been fatal from one point of view, but 
what would it have availed for the body to have survived the 
death of the soul? Douglas wished to preserve the Union of states 
by a concession to that opinion which looked upon slavery as 
a positive good. Douglas may not have agreed with that opinion 
although his disagreement is highly equivocal, in that he always 
endorsed the theory of racial inequality which justified Negro 
slavery but his doctrine of popular sovereignty gave a stamp 
of moral approval to the decision of any white majority to have 
slavery. Douglas thought that only by recognizing the equality 
of majorities of white Americans could the constitutional equality 
of the states be maintained and therewith loyalty to the principle 
of federal union. But, said Lincoln, the "central idea" of the 
Republic is not "that 'all States as States, are equal* nor yet that 
'all citizens as citizens are equal/ but . . . the broader, better 
declaration, including both these and much more, that 'all men 


are created equal/ " 8 The idea of preserving constitutional equal- 
ity by repudiating human equality was a moral and logical 

According to Lincoln, the extension or non-extension of slavery 
in 1858 would be possible only in so far as the people of the 
United States adopted, or repudiated, the view that slavery was 
morally right and socially desirable. This, in turn, hinged upon 
their denial of the universal meaning of the Declaration of 
Independence or their return to its "ancient" meaning. The issue 
that Douglas tried throughout the debates to make between him- 
self and his opponent was that 

Mr. Lincoln asserts as a fundamental principle of this 
government, that there must be uniformity in the local laws 
and domestic institutions of each and all the states of the 
Union ... In other words, Mr. Lincoln advocates boldly 
and clearly a war of sections, a war of the North against 
the South, of the free states against the slave states a war 
of extermination to be continued until the one or the other 
shall be subdued and all the states shall either become free 
or become slave. 

Now, my friends ... I assert that it is neither desirable 
nor possible that there should be uniformity in the local 
institutions ... of the different states of this Union. ... I 
therefore conceive that my friend, Mr. Lincoln, has totally 
misapprehended the great principles upon which our govern- 
ment rests . . . Uniformity is the parent of despotism the 
world over, not only in politics but in religion. Wherever 
the doctrine of uniformity is proclaimed, that all the states 
must be free or slave, that all labor must be white or black, 
that all the citizens of the different states must have the same 
privileges or be governed by the same regulations, you have 
destroyed the greatest safeguard which our institutions have 
thrown around the rights of the citizen. 4 

Douglas has gained great credit among historians for his accurate 
prognostication that the end result of Lincoln's policy would be 
a war between the states culminating in the final overthrow of 
freedom or slavery. Lincoln never denied that such a war was 
possible, but he insisted that it was no part of his intention to 
bring it about. And he would not be frightened from his policy 


by threats of war against it Douglas's assertion that Lincoln in- 
sisted upon uniformity is, however, true in a certain sense. But 
in the sense in which it is true Douglas himself also demanded 
uniformity. For if such an aphorism as Douglas's "uniformity is 
the parent of despotism" is true, then Douglas must have believed 
it was as desirable that there be uniformity of conviction on t his 
as Lincoln believed it was desirable to have uniformity of con- 
viction on the moral wrong of slavery. The only true issue was 
what are the convictions and hence what are the institutions 
with respect to which it is desirable to have uniformity and what 
are the ones with respect to which diversity is either permissible 
or desirable, or both. Lincoln insisted that the diversity which 
sprang from soil and climate or the diversity which sprang from 
religious freedom was both permissible and desirable. But slav- 
ery was not such a thing. A free people cannot disagree, or 
agree to disagree, on the relative merits of freedom and despot- 
ism. If the majority favors despotism, it is no longer a free people, 
whether the form of the government has already changed or not. 
Jefferson had said: "If there be any among us who would wish 
to dissolve this Union or to change its republican form, let them 
stand undisturbed as monuments of the safety with which error 
of opinion may be tolerated where reason is left free to combat 
it" Yet the change of opinion in the South, from the age of 
Washington and Jefferson, who treated slavery as a necessary 
evil to be gradually done away with, to the present positive good 
school, culminating in the open denial of equal human rights, 
had also led to the virtually complete suppression of divergent 
opinion there. When Senator Foote of Mississippi had in 1848 
invited Senator Hale of New Hampshire to visit Mississippi and 
grace the highest tree in the forest there (which earned him 
the sobriquet of Hangman Foote), Hale responded by inviting 
Foote to New Hampshire, where he assured him a respectful 
hearing in every town and hamlet. Wherever the view that slavery 
was a positive good gained the ascendancy, a political demand 
arose for the purge of all dissenting opinion. The culmination 
of this trend, which came after the joint debates, was Douglas's 
Senate speech, following John Brown's raid, in which he called 
for a criminal sedition law which would have banned the Repub- 
lican party as effectively as any law proposed by the late Senator 
McCarthy would have banned the Communist party. With the 
repudiation of human equality vanished the genius of republican 


freedom. The idea that any society can subsist without an agree- 
ment upon fundamentals is, of course, a delusion. But it is pecul- 
iarly true of a republican society, where the opinion of all the 
people enters into the government. Every "agreement to disa- 
gree" presupposes a prior agreement with respect to which 
disagreement can not be tolerated. According to Lincoln, it was 
Intolerable that the American people disagree upon the principle 
of the abstract equality of all men. In so far as they did so they 
were no longer one nation. 

The doctrine of popular sovereignty, as interpreted by Douglas, 
was the miner and sapper, which was preparing just such a change 
of opinion in the North as had already come over the South. 
It was impossible in 1858 to say to the great majority of the North 
that slavery was right. But by treating it as if it was not wrong 
Douglas went as far as it was possible to go in that direction. 
While the great majority still believed in the principle of freedom, 
Lincoln held, it was the course of wisdom to have an authoritative 
showdown at the polls, a showdown that would place despotism 
beyond the pale of hope of its advocates. That those who would 
not be able to resist the decision of the ballots might have recourse 
to bullets never frightened Lincoln, nor must it frighten any man 
who believes in free government That is the true answer to those 
who hold Douglas wise in seeing the possibility of war in Re- 
publican victory. In the end it was the answer Douglas himself 
gave to the South. 

Douglas, Lincoln said, professed not to care whether slavery 
was voted up or down, but this was the very thing about which 
nearly every man in the country* North or South, cared and cared 
deeply. As Lincoln said repeatedly, he believed he had no right, 
and he professed no inclination, to use the power of the federal 
government to interfere with slavery in the states. But he was 
convinced that the decision as to whether slavery was to be 
permitted in the territories would determine, indirectly, whether 
slavery would eventually become lawful in all the states. And 
this decision was not, could not be considered, a local one. It 
was not a question for Kansas alone. It concerned (M the people, 
and it was a decision for all to make. 5 A free people cannot 
allow the most vital question concerning its future to go by de- 
fault Hamilton had written in the first Federalist, Tft has been 
frequently remarked that it seems to have been reserved to the 


of this by their conduct and example, to decide 

the question, whether societies of men are really 

or not of good government from refection 

and or they are forever destined to depend for 

constitutions on accident and force/* Lincoln did 

not it was possible to perpetuate a government dedicated 

to a truth, a government intended to incorporate the 

of rational choice, by a pretense of indifference to the 

of all political choices, the choice between 

According to Lincoln, a free people cannot disagree on the 
of and despotism without ceasing, to the 

of the to be a free people. In choosing to enslave 

It is impossible not to concede the Justice of one's 
Hie commitment to freedom must simultane- 
ously be a commitment to justice, and the idea of a freedom 
to be en Just would imply, by equal reason, a freedom to be unfree. 
and fustiee are, in IJncoIn's vocabulary, distinguishable, 
are as Inseparable as the concavity and the convexity 
of a curved line. The most concise expression of Lincoln's reason- 
fag on the theme may be found in another of his great 
In lie distilled the essence of arguments which 
discursively thrcmgbcwit the debates* It too is undated. 

If A, can prove, however oondusively, that he may, of right, 
B~why may not B. snatch the same argument, and 

that he may enslave A? 

You say A. is white* and B. is black It is cctor 9 then; the 

the to enslave the darker? Take care. 

By yon are to be dave to the first maa you meet, 

a your own. 

You do not actiy? You mean the whites are 

the of the blacks, and, there! ore have 

the to than? Take care again. By this rule, you 

are to be to the man you meet, with an intellect 

to own. 

But; ty it is a of interest; and, if you can 

It yo or you have the right to ensla ve another, 

If I can it his interest, be has the 

to yoct 


The agamst the claim of intellectual superiority, the 

only serious argument in favor of slavery, was one which Lincoln 

apparently inherited from Clay. In a speech at Edwards- 
viHe* lliaoiSj September 11, 1858, when the campaign was far 
advanced, Lincoln read to Ms audience the following 

from a letter written by Clay in 1849; 

I know there are those who draw an argument in favor 
of slavery from the alleged Intellectual inferiority of the black 
race. Whether this argimient is founded in fact or not, I 
will not now stop to inquire* but merely say that if it proves 
anytihiBg at all, it proves too much. It proves that 
the white races of the world any one might properly be ea- 
slaved by any other wMdh had made greater advances in 
civilizatioxL And, if this role applies to nations there is no 
reason why it should not apply to individuals; and it might 
easily be proved that the wisest man in the world could 
rightfully reduce all other men and women to bondage/ 

It should be noted from the foregoing that 

Lincoln nor Cky attempts to the claims of intellectual 

superiority; what they maintain is that the consequences of ad- 
nutting such claims are such as none of who raise them 

are prepared to accept To raise such claims is an act of 
folly, and an act of foly cannot vindicate an of 

tual superiority or wisdom! As Lincoln remarked in of 

his fragments, "Although volume upon volume is to prove 

slavery a very good things, we never of the man who 
to take the good of it % It is 

in such remarks that a wise man would Ms 

superiority in wisdom, Other wise men* we may 
recognize his wisdom by reason of own, the foly erf 

the fool is the very thing that It 

These is no sorer sign that a is a or a Ms 

daim to rule other men because he is *flm 

of the case of al who or divine* far 

of is by Uaccda 

For we wil tike Dr. b*s * 

m& tike Is* T ft die Wffl of GoA 

Sambo a or be set Tie Al- 
mighty no to the Ms 


revelationthe Bible gives none or, at most, none but such 
as admits of a squabble, as to its meaning. No one thinks of 
asking Sambo's opinion on it So, at last, it comes to this, that 
Dr. Ross is to decide the question. And while he considers it, 
he sits in the shade, with gloves on his hands, and subsists 
on the bread that Sambo is earning in the burning sun. If he 
decides that God Wills Sambo to continue a slave, he thereby 
retains his own comfortable position; but if he decides that 
God wills Sambo to be free, he thereby has to walk out of 
the shade, throw off Ms gloves, and delve for his own bread. 
Will Dr. Ross be actuated by that perfect impartiality, which 
has ever been considered most favorable to correct deci- 
sions? 8 

"Slavery," Lincoln had said in his Peoria speech, the first in which 
he came to grips publicly with the peculiar institution, "is founded 
in the selfishness of man's nature opposition to it, in his love of 
Justice. These principles are an eternal antagonism; and when 
brought into collision so fiercely, as slavery extension brings them, 
shocks, and throes, and convulsions must ceaselessly follow.** 9 

For Lincoln was convinced that slavery was rooted in human 
selfishness, and the arguments advanced to justify it were per- 
versions of reason, designed to quiet the sense of Justice which 
must ever denounce the act of enslavement whenever it presents 
itself to a man in its true character. It was impossible to vindicate 
a claim to self-government, which was at lie same time the as- 
sertion of a right to be unjust. Political freedom could only be 
vindicated, Lincoln believed, on the grounds that it led to greater 
justice between man and man than a system in which there was 
no political freedom, 

But we are then confronted with this paradox; if just govern- 
ment is based upon the consent of the governed, what right to 
govern inheres in those who claim political rights not on the basis 
of equality but on the basis of their superiority? What right to 
govern is there in a community which does not believe in 
government by the consent of the governed? Curiously enough, 
the case of the white South before the Civil War resembled in 
one striking particular the case of the Negroes which it asserted 
a right to enslave. That is to say, the whites said the Negroes 
were deficient in civilized qualities, but, by Lincoln's definition, 
the whites who denied the Declaration were in a crucial respect 


also uncivilized. Douglas, expressing the view of the South, 
said at Ottawa: 

Now, I do not believe that the Almighty ever intended 
the negro to be the equal of the white man. If he did, he has 
been a long time demonstrating that fact For thousands of 
years the negro has been a race upon the earth, and during 
all that time, in all latitudes and climates, wherever he has 
wandered or been taken, he has been inferior to the race 
which he has there met. He belongs to an inferior race, and 
must always occupy an inferior position. 10 

In order to understand Lincoln's reaction to Douglas's tiresome 
reiteration of this theme, one must first do credit to the element 
of truth which it contains. One need not even inquire into its 
historical accuracy, as far as "thousands of years" is concerned, 
in order to see that, within the framework of nineteenth-century 
civilization, the ascendancy of the civilization of western Europe 
over that of the peoples of Africa and Asia was unchallenged and 
appeared unchallengeable. But, to put the case in its hardest 
form, the promulgation of the doctrines of the Enlightenment, 
of the principles of political freedom as proclaimed in the English 
Revolution of 1688, the American Revolution of 1776, and the 
French Revolution of 1789, was aU the work of Western men and 
of white men. The great tragedy of the Negro in America, as 
of other non- Western peoples since, lay in the fact that he was 
compelled to appeal for the recognition of his natural rights to 
white men and that he could not point to their recognition by 
black men elsewhere; for it was undeniably true that no govern- 
ment of black men anywhere had yet secured the equal rights of 
black men in the sense that this government of white men secured 
the equal rights of its citizens. From this point of view it must be 
conceded that Negroes did come from an "inferior civilization/* 
that is, from a civilisation in which there was no recognition of the 
universal equal rights of man. However, this argument, as Henry 
Cky would say, also proves too much. For it is also true that in 
western Europe, whence the doctrine of universal equal rights 
emanated, there had beaa no general recognition of these equal 
rights until the eighteenth century. The monarchies of the West- 
ern world, with few exceptions, and those very recent, did not 
recogpoibze such rights. And it was not until 1776 that any nation 
had been founded upon the explicit recognition of such rights. In 


short, if Douglas's argument were to be taken seriously, It would 
prove -that the Almighty had waited many thousands of years to 
demonstrate the capacity of .the white man, no less than that of the 
Negro, for self-government 

We have already quoted from John Stuart Mill's essay, "On 
Liberty ,* published in 1859, to the effect that "despotism is a 
legitimate mode of government in dealing with barbarians, pro- 
vided the end be their improvement, and the means justified by 
actually effecting that end.** It must, we believe, be conceded that 
the justice of despotism is not absolutely and unequivocally re- 
futed by Lincoln's argument For it follows as a necessary implica- 
tion of the Declaration itself that, in Mill's words, "Liberty, as a 
principle, has no application to any state of things anterior to 
the time when mankind have become capable of being improved 
by free and equal discussion," In other words, in a world that 
is duped and befuddled by the obscurantism practiced upon their 
peoples and upon themselves by, e.g., feudal kings and nobles, or 
in a world in which the souls of savage peoples are locked within 
the dark night of primeval barbarism, self-government of the 
people is inconceivable. But the right of revolution announced 
in the Declaration, the right to use force against those who would 
deny us the security of our natural rights to life and liberty, 
is obviously applicable against corrupt or degraded peoples as 
well as against rulers of this description. The right to revolution 
is a right to use violence against anyone who would deny us 
the enjoyment of our rights. From this viewpoint an enlightened 
minority has the same right to use force against a brutal majority 
as an enlightened majority has against a brutal king. And, if the 
minority or majority which is brutalized cannot be eixiled, it must 
be ruled despotically until such time as it can justly be admitted 
to a share in government And this argument, be it noted, although 
it lends color to the enslavement of the Negroes in the South, 
equally justified the destruction of the Confederacy by war and 
the institution of reconstruction governments which certainly 
ruled arbitrarily. The South, in denying the equal natural rights of 
the Negro, not only denied the foundation of its own rights; it 
denied as well its own competence to exercise these fights. 

Was there an element of self-contradiction in Lincoln's position 
in that it denounces any recognition of a right to despotic rule and 
yet contemplates violence against those who assart a right to des- 
potic rule? We maintain that there is not Lincoln had grappled 


with this problem, and solved ft, in the Lyceum speech. It is 
true that some men are so superior to other men that they might, 
in theory, justly rule them without the other men's consent But 
such a right does not require recognition in the sense that uni- 
versal equal rights must be recognized. It is the nature of superior 
men, the very essence of their superiority, that it cannot be 
gratified by exploiting other men. It is the renunciation of the 
power of exploitation which alone can gratify their sense of 
superiority. Hence those who use the argument of superiority to 
enslave as the Rev. Dr. Rossare not superior men. Where men 
are enlightened meaning thereby where they recognize the 
moral necessity of the doctrine of equal natural rights they are 
capable of being improved by rational discussion, to use Mill's 
phrase. It is the function of the great man, the sign of his mastery, 
that he employs his powers by confirming and enhancing his fel- 
low citizens* capacity for self-improvement and chastens any 
backsliding from the convictions that entitle them to be consid- 
ered rational men. The great man, be he a Washington or another, 
will not force the wills of those who will not themselves coerce 
the wills of others, except to secure their own rights. But neither 
will rational men hesitate to use force to secure their rights. 
And it does not matter, in principle, whether the threat to that 
security comes from the one or die many, the majority or the 

The foregoing reflections obtrude upon us another difficulty 
which must lead us for the moment beyond the horizon of the 
debates proper. It will be seen from what we have just said what 
the underlying ''necessity^ was that, in Lincoln's words, justified 
the Founding Fathers in tolerating slavery. That necessity was, 
on the one hand, the avarice of slaveowners, which was too strong 
to be overcome, and, on the other, the actual condition of 
degradation of their slaves, partly an inheritance from Africa and 
partly the consequence of the brutaHzation of slavery. It was 
axiomatic for Lincoln that the slavery of the Negroes could be 
extenuated only on the supposition that the institution was "in 
course of ultimate octiacti0n^ and this in turn could only be 
contemplated if the Negroes were* in some sense, being prepared 
for freedom. In his eulogy of Henry Cky, Lincoln quoted the 


following from Clay's speech to the American Colonization Society 
in 1827: 

There is a moral fitness in the idea of returning to Africa 
her children, whose ancestors have been torn from her by 
the ruthless hand of fraud and violence. Transplanted in a 
foreign land, they will carry back to their native soil the 
rich fruits of religion, civilization, law and liberty. May it 
not be one of the great designs of the Ruler of the universe, 
(whose ways are often inscrutable by short-sighted mortals,) 
thus to transform an original crime, into a signal blessing 
to that most unfortunate portion of the globe? 11 

That the enslavement of Negroes was "just" in a qualified sense, 
so long as they were being prepared for freedom, must, we 
believe, be conceded. But what of the "crime 1 * of their enslave- 
ment? Lincoln once complained of the Liberty party men, who 
would not vote for Henry Clay because he owned slaves, that 
they had helped elect Polk in his stead and thus helped to bring 
on the Mexican War and with it the extension of slavery. The 
Liberty men said, "We are not to do evil that good may come," to 
which Lincoln replied, "By the fruit the tree is to be known. 
An evil tree can not bring forth good fruit. If the fruit of electing 
Mr. Clay would have been to prevent the extension of slavery, 
could the act of electing have been evil?" 12 But the same argu- 
ment may be turned to the question of the American Negro's 
original enslavement. If we are to know the tree by its fruit, and 
if the final fruit of the African slave trade was to be tibe possession 
by Africans of the infinitely precious doctrine of equal human 
rights and the possibility of erecting an edifice of human freedom, 
which could only be built upon such a teaching, how can we 
regard the means to such an end as a crime? To say that God 
alone may do evil that good may come cannot, we should think, 
be regarded as more than an evasion. 

We have in a number of places suggested analogies between 
Lincoln's moral teaching, as a foundation for his political teach- 
ing, and Aristotle's. Such an analogy must seem paradoxical in 
the light of the reputation of the one as the great defender of 
slavery and the other as its supreme antagonist Yet the paradox, 
we maintain, lies more in their reputations than to the truth, 
Aristotle's vindication of natural slavery, in the first book of his 
Politics, is a defense of the slavery of the man who lacks sufficient 


reason to guide himself and can only live a useful life when some- 
one else directs him. This has reference primarily to the mentally 
feeble, and no society gives such men their freedom, whether 
it allows them to be made chattels or puts them in institutions. 
It would also refer to those who, for whatever reason, are in- 
corrigiblethe Calibans of this world and all such men are also 
put under restraint in one way or another* 

But Aristotle clearly envisaged the continued existence of a 
slavery which is not natural in any of the foregoing senses, which 
is, therefore, merely conventional and which is, therefore, by his 
own terms, unjust. In book seven of the Politics Aristotle repeat- 
edly speaks of the employment of slaves in his best polity, a 
polity which is either tie most just possible or which embodies 
the greatest degree of justice generally attainable by the poleis of 
his time. Superficially this would stand in marked contrast to Lin- 
coln's summons to recognize the natural equality of rights of all 
mankind. But only superficially. For in the ninth chapter of the 
seventh book Aristotle remarks, "Why it is better for all slaves 
to have freedom set before them as a prize (or reward), we 
will say later." This promise is not kept in any surviving portions 
of the Politics, which appears to be fragmentary. The passage 
indicates, however, two things; first, that the slaves Aristotle has 
in mind are slaves not by nature but by convention only; and, 
secondly, that slaves who are slaves by convention only should 
have their slavery **in course of ultimate extinction/* For Aristotle, 
no less than Lincoln, the hope and, by consequence, the virtuous 
activity which liberty engenders must not be shut out of the heart 
of the slave. 

But Aristotle, unlike Lincoln, definitely sanctions "slave catch- 
ing* and envisages a more or less steady supply of slaves, probably 
always as great as the number set free. Why? The answer, we 
believe, is somewhat as follows. Aristotle regarded civilization as 
limited primarily, though not exclusively, to Greeks. This certainly 
was not because he thought Greeks alone capable of becoming 
civilized, since he thought that non-Greeks captured and en- 
slaved by Greeks could be made fit for freedom by the training 
provided by Greek life. It was because civilization in the world 
he knew was a rare and difficult plant and, in fact, existed only 
in extremely fortunate drcumstances. Its existence elsewhere was 
always possible but extremely improbabla The enslavement of 
barbarians by Greeks was then justified by the fact that it was 


probably the only way in which, barbarians could be civilized. 
That slave labor contributed to the material elevation of Greek 
life certainly did not detract from the element of justice in slavery 
from Aristotle's point of view. The economic scarcity of the 
ancient world-in contrast to the rapidly increasing abundance 
of the world Lincoln knew must also be taken into consideration 
in accounting for the degree of toleration each has for a phe- 
nomenon which was intrinsically unjust from either's point of 


But there is this further difference. The revolution which began 
in 1776 was, according to Lincoln, only the beginning of a world 
revolution. In his Mexican War speech of January 12, 1848, Lincoln 
referred to the right of revolution proclaimed in the Declaration 
as "a most valuable, a most sacred right a right which, we hope 
and believe, is to liberate the world." Lincoln had seen in his own 
lifetime virtually the whole of Central and South America "revo- 
lutionize/' And he had seen Texas successfully revolt from Mexico 
after Mexico had revolted from Spain. Within two lifetimes two 
whole continents had undergone revolutions in the name of the 
doctrines of the Declaration; and, although Europe's experience 
had been less happy, the foundations of absolutism had repeat- 
edly been shaken by unsuccessful revolutions, and the confidence 
of European liberals in ultimate success was high. In these cir- 
cumstances Lincoln felt, with Webster, that our prime duty as a 
nation was to set an example of a free republic dedicated to 
elevating the conditions of life of its own people without any 
spirit of aggrandizement toward men elsewhere. In the contest of 
Lincoln and Douglas we may see the issue of the last great 
Whig-Democratic contest redefined, the issue in the campaign of 
Clay and Polk. This issue we may call the issue of internal 
improvement versus external conquest and aggression. Lincoln's 
summons to fidelity to the Declaration is the phoenix risen from 
the ashes of the old Whig call for internal improvement, but the 
concept of internal improvement has been purified and trans- 
formed to mean the improvement of the nation's souL Internal 
improvement versus foreign aggression is interpreted by Lincoln, 
in his contest with Douglas, in precisely the sense in which 
Socrates interprets those concepts in Plato's Republic. When 
Glaucon rejects the city of primitive moral health, the **city 
of pigs," it is because he demands luxuries, luxuries which he 
thinks it is more troublesome to do without than to purchase 


by aggressive wax. AH of Douglas's policies pointed to ag- 
gressive war as the solution of Internal difficulties, difficulties 
which Lincoln, like Plato, believed could be avoided only 
through moral restraint. Lincok saw the road of aggression, 
whether of the individual or of the nation, as a road of endless 
involvement, aggression begetting aggression, with the end never 
nearer. In a world of growing interdependence, particularly the 
moral interdependence created by the principles of the Declara- 
tion itself, this course had become peculiarly impossible* For the 
Declaration of Independence was the first case in history in which 
a single people made a national revolution on the assumption 
that its particular principles were, simultaneously, the universal 
principles which civilized men everywhere would recognize. The 
Declaration assumed that its potential, if not its actual addressees, 
embraced the entire family of man. AIM! it did not think of these 
addressees as some few **wise men * who, like the ancient Stoics, 
might live in the interstices of society in widely scattered lands. 
The Declaration assumed a mass audience throughout the world, 
capable, sooner or later, of acting upon the principles it an- 
nounced. There never was a time in the ancient world when a 
statement of universal principles of right could have been made 
with the assumption of such an audience. And once the cause 
of political freedom had been indissolubly associated with such 
a statement of principles, it could only be maintained by associat- 
ing with such principles an example of moral restraint, an example 
of respect for the rights of men everywhere. 

For Aristotle, as for Lincoln, the slavery of men who were mor* 
aUy and intellectually capable of managing their own lives 
without injury to others was intriMically unjust For Lincoln, as 
for Aristotle, there were ^necessities" which justified the tolera- 
tion of slavery, which made it a lesser evil, "Cast into life where 
slavery was already widely spread and deeply seated/* Lincoln 
said of Henxy Clay in Ms eulogy of his great and revered leader, 
**h did not perceive, as I think no wise man has perceived, 
how it could of once be eradicated, without producing a greater 
evil, even to the cause of human liberty itself.** 18 That there 
was a difference in world between Aristotle and Lincoln may 
be conceded, but that there was a difference in principle* as 
to tibe Intrinsic justice of slavery, must be doubted. This, we be- 
Heve^ is true even if It is ako true that fa Aristotle's world the 
Institution of slavery m distinct from the slavery of individual 


menwould always be among the lesser evils and thus could 
never jj^ wisely placed *in course of ultimate extinction.** In Lin- 
coln's world the chronic economic scarcity which was among the 
justifications of ancient slavery did not exist. If in Aristotle's world 
the possibility of leisure, and hence the cultivation of the liberal 
arts, depended in some ways on slavery, the reverse was true in 
Lincoln's world. In 'the nineteenth century freedom, not slavery, 
was productive of economic abundance. The machine was the 
slave of the modem world, and property in man by man could not 
be defended on moral grounds except as a temporary expedient 
Whether Lincoln's world or Aristotle's world was the better world, 
whether the hope engendered by the machine, of the final 
abolition of human exploitation, outweighs the fears engendered 
by this same machine, is a question upon which we need not 
enter here. It was not a question for Lincoln, since he was called 
upon to act in a world already governed by the potentialities 
of the machine, for good and for evil. 

In concluding this analysis we would observe that, although 
the relationship of a master to one who is a slave, not by nature, 
but by convention only, is always intrinsicaEy unjust, there is no 
way of knowing, a priori, whether it is just or unjust, whether 
it is a greater or a lesser evil, to sanction such a relationship 
in particular cases, For it is the essence of practical wisdom to 
adapt its judgments to differences in circumstances. The purpose 
of practical wisdom is always the same, and the wise statesman 
will act to achieve the greatest measure of justice that the world 
in which he is acting admits. 

Chapter XVI 
Popular Sovereignty: True and False 

LINCOLN constantly warned those who would either approve or 
withhold their disapproval of slavery that this was a matter upon 
which, In principle, there oould be no compromise or equivoca- 
tion. To those Southerners who appealed to the Bible to justify 
slavery he said that Douglas was wiser than they, for Biblical 
slavery was the slavery of white men. We have given it as our 
opinion, in Chapter II, that for Douglas the essence of free gov- 
ernment lay in the power of decision of a free people of the 
most vital, no less than of the most trivial, questions. Lincoln 
agreed, but he believed that shifting responsibility for the future 
of the nation upon the first few stragglers into Kansas or Nebraska 
was a miserable evasion of responsibility. And Douglas's assump- 
tion, in his *Don*l care** policy, that the doctrine of popular 
sovereignty was such that the duty of statesmanship was ex- 
hausted when the people's power of decision was secured to them 
was absolutely false, Lincoln's classic refutation of this thesis may 
be found in the Peoria speech; 

The doctrine of self-government is rightabsolutely and 
eternally right, but it has no just application, as hare at- 
tempted Or perhaps I should say that whether it has such 
application depends upon whether the negro is not or is a 
man. If he is not a man, why in that case, he who is a man 
may, as a matter of sdtf-govemment* do just as he pleases 
with him. But if the negro is a man, is it not to that extent 
a total dbstractton of self-govatraneot, to say that he too 
shall not govern himmlf? When the white man governs Mm- 
self that is seK-govarnmeoat; but when he governs himself. 


and also governs another man, that is more than self-govern- 
mentthat is despotism. If the negro is a man, why then my 
ancient faith teaches me that "all men are created equal;** 
and that there can be no moral right in connection with one 
man's making a slave of another. 

Judge Douglas frequently, with bitter irony and sarcasm, 
paraphrases our argument by saying; *The white people of 
Nebraska are good enough to govern themselves, but they 
are not good enough to govern a few miserable negroesir 

Well I doubt not that the people of Nebraska axe, and 
will continue to be as good as the average of people else- 
where. I do not say the contrary. What I do say is, that no 
man is good enough to govern another man, without that 
others consent. I say this is the leading principle the sheet 
anchor of American republicanism. 1 

Free government, according to Lincoln, was not the mare process 
of arriving at decisions without coercion by any formula embody- 
ing the principle of majority rule. It was not even government 
of, by, and for the people. It was government of, by, and for 
a people dedicated to a certain proposition. Many of those 
present-day admirers of Douglas who remember the end of the 
Gettysburg Address forget its beginning. Lincoln's position always 
embraced both concepts, while Douglas never comprehended 
the meaning of the principle of equality, nor its relation to popular 
sovereignty, properly so called. 

If self-government was a rfgfctf, and not a mare fact character- 
izing the American scene (more or less), then it must be derived 
from some primary source of obligation. There must be something, 
Lincoln insisted, inhering in each man, as a man, which created 
an obligation in every other man. And if any majority anywhere, 
however constituted, might rightfully enslave any man or men, 
it could only be because there was nothing in any man which, 
simply because he was a man, other men were bound to respect 
If the latter were true, as Douglas implied, then the mere exist- 
ence anywhere of the phenomenon of self-government said noth- 
ing as to its rightness or desirability. It might exist because of 
merely fortuitous circumstances or of beliefs which had no support 
beyond the fact of their being believed. It would then be mean- 
ingless to say that anyone had a duty to perpetuate a self- 
governing polity or to bring one into existence where there was 


none. Since Douglas did not indicate any other groBnd than 
Lincoln's as the foundation of his doctrine of popular sovereignty, 
he was utterly illogical in claiming for it the status of an eternal 
principle of political right 

Douglas's popular sovereignty, sanctioning as it did the enslave- 
ment of one description of men by another, of necessity sanc- 
tioned the enslavement of any other description of men. Douglas 
affirmed 'the right to enslave only as a right of the white race 
in dealing with all other races (which were "inferior" and had no 
right to self-government, according to Douglas). But Douglas 
simply had not thought through the implications of such a posi- 
tion. Why, if a white majority, whether in a state or in the nation, 
decided to enslave a white minority (or to deprive it of political 
rights or otherwise act in a manner that tibe Declaration of 
Independence would classify as "despotic 1 *), might it not right- 
fully do so? If one answers that such actions would he contrary to 
the Constitution, the reply follows that any constitution is merely 
a document of positive law and that the same "sovereign people** 
which establishes it may alter or abolish, by constitutional or 
revolutionary measures, any imbibitions to its own authority. More- 
over, as Lincoln saw by 1857, a constitutional majority, in the 
sense of the amending clause of the Constitution, is not necessary 
to amend that document in any real sense. The majorities which 
elect President and Congress can, on any point upon which they 
are really agreed, do anything they wish. For President and 
Congress together can always reconstitute, overrule, or disregard 
the Supreme Court DF, then, one majority might, without vio- 
lating any fundamental moral principle, enslave one minority, 
whatever its color or composition, there as no principle, cer- 
tainly none involved in the mere idea of majority rule, which 
would inhibit it from enslaving another. And if one minority after 
another is enslaved, the majority itself becomes a minority. In 
short, the idea of a popular sovereignty divorced from a universal 
conception of human right is a complete absurdity. 

Lincoln's second question to Douglas at Freeport is rightly 
famous, for it was the immediate cause of the most significant 
political effects. Yet it is the third question, to which we have 
already adverted, which leads most directly to the heart of the 
issues between the two men. TGE the Supreme Court of the United 
States shall decide that states can not exclude slavery from their 


limits, are you in favor of acquiescing in, adopting and f Glowing 
such decision as a rale of political action?'' ran this interrogatory. 
In contrast to Douglas's downright, although indefensible, answer 
to the second question, Ms reply to the foregoing is completely 
evasive. At Freeport in his initial reply he spoke thus: "I am 
amazed that Lincoln should ask such a question. (*A school boy 
knows better/) Yes, a school boy knows better. Mr. Lincoln's 
object is to cast an imputation upon the Supreme Court ... He 
casts an imputation upon the Supreme Court of the United States 
by supposing that they would violate the Constitution of the 
United States. I tell him such a thing is not possible. It would be 
an act of moral treason that no man on the bench could ever 
descend to." Thus, instead of giving an answer, Douglas says 
the question is improper because it assumes an impossibility. Yet 
whether or not the Court would decide that states might not 
prohibit slavery, nothing is more evident than that it was pos- 
sible, fust as it was possible for the justices to go insane. If mental 
or moral incompetence on the part of Supreme Court justices were 
impossible, why should the Constitution permit their impeach- 
ment? Lincoln hammered away at this vital flaw in Douglas's 
armor and at Quincy received the following response, which was 
the last he was to receive, to the third Freeport question: 

But, Mr. Lincoln says -that I will not answer Ms question 
as to what I would do in the event of the court making so 
ridiculous a decision as he imagines they would by deciding 
that the free state of Illinois could not prohibit slavery within 
her own limits. 1 tM him at Freeport why I would not answer 
mch a question. I told him that there was not a man possess- 
ing any brains in America, lawyer or not, who ever dreamed 
that such a thing could be done. I told him then, as I say 
now, that by all the principles set forth in the Dred Scott 
decision, it is impossible. I told him then, as I do now, that 
it is an insult to men's understanding, and a gross calumny 
on the court, to presume in advance that it was going to 
degrade itself so low as to make a decision known to be in 
direct violation of the Constitution. 2 

At this point in the speech a voice from the audience was heard 
to say, The same thing was said about the Dred Scott decision 
before it passed." That voice, with all that it implied, may well 
pass as the true voice of the muse of History. We have italicized 


the sentence in which Douglas admits -that he has not and will not 
answer Lincoln's question. And the expressed reasons for the re- 
fusal are, of course, inadmissible, Douglas had referred to Lincoln 
at Chicago at the beginning of the campaign (July 9, 1858) as 
a 'land, amiable, and intelligent gentleman, a good citizen and 
an honorable opponent* 7 Perhaps Douglas hoped to tame Lincoln 
and bring him over to the Greeley view with 'this "nice doggy** 
approach. If so, he must have been soon disenchanted. At any 
rate, this "intelligent" man, who happened also to be a lawyer 
of some distinction, certainly did believe the decision in question 
was possible, and he had convinced many thousands that it was 
possible. This Douglas knew, and in saying that no one believed 
it he was saying what he must have known to be false. Lincoln 
had, moreover, at Galesburg, demonstrated by irrefragable logic, 
as we have shown, that such a decision did not contradict the 
principles of the Dred Scott decision, at least as set forth in the 
Chief Justice's opinion, which was the opinion of the Court. And 
Douglas never undertook to grapple with Lincoln's syllogism. He 
did not because he could not. 

To that unnamed voice Douglas replied by repeating what lie 
had said in substance just before the passage we have quoted: 
M . . . I will not be drawn off into an argument upon the merits 
of the Dred Scott decision. It is enough for me to know that 
the Constitution of the United States created the Supreme Court 
for the purpose of deciding all disputed questions touching the 
true construction of that instrument . . /* Of course, that the 
Supreme Court was entrusted with deciding "all disputed ques- 
tions" was itself a disputed point in the debates. Everyone knew 
that the Constitution itself says nothing of the kind. Lincoln, as 
we have observed, cited Jefferson and Jackson to the effect that 
each officer of the government must uphold the Constitution as 
he understands it Douglas was transfixed on a sharply thrown 
spear, and no wriggling could do more than fix the spear more 

Douglas's crucial statement in his reply to Lincoln was his 
assertion that Lincoln's question implied that the judges were 
capable of "moral treason,** This, of course, is precisely what 
Lincoln believed. Not only did he believe the judges capable 
of moral treason, but he believed they had actually committed it 
For Lincoln believed that moral treason consisted, above all, in 
denying tike proposition that "all men are created equal" or in 


denying that this was in fact the foundation of the American 
constitutional system. Douglas was not logically required to ac- 
cept Lincoln's definition of moral treason, but it was no less fatal 
to the logic o his position to invoke the concept of such treason. 
For the very idea of moral treason means that there is a higher, 
substantive principle to which the idea of "legal treason" must 
be subordinate. To have invoked such a concept and then to 
have affirmed a readiness to accept the political consequences 
of the decisions of the Supreme Court, whatever they might be, 
made no sense. If moral treason is more heinous than legal 
treason, then one who unquestioningly obeys a bad law (or legal 
enactment, such as a court decision) must in principle be in- 
ferior to one who is prepared to disobey it And, by equal 
reason, to change the law from what is morally right to what 
is morally wrong e.g., to change free kw into slave law must in 
principle be as great a wrong as disobedience to morally good 
law. Lincoln, in the Lyceum speech, in Ms most extreme plea 
for obedience to law a plea which was, of course, not for obedi- 
ence to any laws, but to those of a free republichad said that 
laws, "if not too intolerable," should always be borne with. And 
he could not have said more, unless he, too, had forgotten the 
right of revolution proclaimed in the Declaration. To repeat: for 
Douglas to say it was enough for him to know that the Court had 
decided something, without inquiring into the merits of the 
decision, was to imply that there was no higher standard than 
positive law; but, if there was no such standard, then the idea 
of moral treason was meaningless. In fact, however, Douglas 
attempted, as we have seen, to make "popular sovereignty^ play 
a role equivalent to "all men are created equal** i& supplying 
the substance of an idea of intrinsic morat-political worth* But 
"popular sovereignty," we have also seen, is reducible to the 
proposition that all political right is positive right. Douglas would 
no more inquire into the merits of a decision of "the people** than 
he would inquire into the merits of the decision of the Court In 
this, at least, he was consistent. 

While the third question is the fundamental question put to 
Douglas at Freeport, the "Freeport question" Itself must not go 
without comment. No more need be said about its effect in 
splitting Douglas from the South, as the "ooi^iracy^ charge in 
the house divided speech was to drive him from his Republican 


admirers. Let us note principally 'that it attempted to convict 
Douglas of "moral treason*' by Ms own definition, in so far as he 
acknowledged an obligation to abide by the Dred Scott decision 
when that decision had denied to the territorial legislature, as 
to Congress, the power to exclude slavery from a territory. 
Douglas, we assume our readers to know, said that it mattered 
not how the Court decided the "abstract" question of territorial 
legislative power, since slavery could not be established any- 
where without affirmative legislation, which the territorial legis- 
lature was under no obligation to pass. Whether Douglas was 
factually correct i.e., whether it was true that positive protection 
was a necessary precondition for the existence of slavery we will 
not now inquire. For the moment we state Lincoln's moral objec- 
tion to such a policy. Lincoln believed such a policy was morally 
intolerable for a free people just because he believed that in a 
free society kw must express the moral conviction of the people, 
Douglas's policy amounted to a nullification of the Constitution 
by destroying the value of a right that the Chief Justice said was 
^expressly affirmed" in the Constitution. On this point Lincoln 
was in agreement with the radical Southerners. As he said at 
Cooper Union in the passage we have quoted in Chapter IX, 
*If slavery is right, all words, acts, laws and constitutions against 
it, are themselves wrong, and should be silenced, and swept 
away." 3 Lincoln beKeved that slavery was wrong and that its 
wrong must be acknowledged if the nation's free institutions 
were to be preserved and perpetuated. But Douglas's conception 
of popular sovereignty not only denied that slavery was wrong, 
but it struck at the root of all morality by denying that men 
had an obligation to act upon what they themselves believed to 
be right. In Ms answer, or refusal to answer the third ques- 
tion, Douglas conceded that the Dred Scott decision was binding 
by conceding that it did not constitute "moral treason'* and did 
not violate the "known" meaning of the Constitution. He would 
not deny that the Constitution "expressly affirmed" the right of 
property in slaves ia the territories. Now was it not "moral 
treason" to **accept" the proposition that the Constitution affirmed 
such a right and yet to say that members of a territorial legislature 
had no duty to secure a right so affirmed? For what purpose 
did the Constitution eadst but to secure the rights it affirmed? 
Lincoln pounded and pounded at this anomaly and insisted, what 
we believe every candid person must admit, that there was no 


qualitative difference between the right to hold and enjoy prop- 
erty in slaves in the territories in the Constitution as expounded 
by Taney and accepted by Douglas and the right to the rendition 
of fugitive slaves in the states. If there was no obligation either 
in Congress or in the territorial legislature to secure one "expressly 
affirmed" right, then where was the duty to secure another? The 
abolitionists were the only ones in the country who had seriously 
denied Congress's duty to pass a fugitive slave law, and Doug- 
las's Freeport Doctrine placed him, a fortiori, on the same ground. 
Lincoln's last words in the joint debates are, "Why there is not 
such an Abolitionist in the nation as Douglas, after all" 4 

In the Nicomachean Ethics Aristotle draws a distinction be- 
tween the antithesis of virtue to vice and that of continence to 
incontinence. These antitheses are similar yet differ significantly. 
A virtuous man acts rightly because he knows what is right and 
has conquered the passions which would prevent him from acting 
rightly. Indeed, the sign of a virtuous character, according to 
Aristotle, is not that its possessor does what is right but that 
he enjoys doing it. A continent man resembles a virtuous man, 
but his passions still resist the good or right action, and hence 
he cannot act with pleasure. The difference between virtue and 
continence may not always be perceptible to an observer, but 
its inner significance is crucial. For the pleasure which accom- 
panies virtuous action inevitably enhances the quality of the 
action. Incontinence differs from vice in that the latter leads a 
man to do the wrong thing deliberately. The vicious man enjoys 
vice as the virtuous man enjoys virtue. The incontinent man, 
however, does not act wrongly from intention but from weakness. 
He knows what is right and wishes to do it, but his errant passions 
are too strong for him. The words of Paul in the Letter to the 
Romans, 7:15 and 19, describe his plight to perfection. 

For that which I do I allow not: for what I would, that I do 
not; but what I hate, that I do. 


For the good that I would I do not: but the evil which 
I would not, that I do. 

Superficially it would seem that, even as continence is a lesser 
excellence than virtue, so incontinence is a lesser evil than vice. 
The vicious man is malevolent on principle, the incontinent man 


because he cannot help himself. And presumably, like Paul, the 
incontinent man can be praised for his intention, if not his action, 
while the vicious man can be blamed for both. 

As a general statement the foregoing conclusion is substantially 
correct Moral education is a process wherein refractory passions 
are subjected to a discipline which must come, for the most part, 
initially from the outside. Incontinence normally precedes con- 
tinence in the chronology of such education. And so does 
continence normally precede virtue. For the yoke of the moral 
demands rests heavily for a long time for most of us before it is 
carried lightly, if ever it is. The process of internalizing the 
moral demands is threefold: first they must be accepted, then 
obeyed, and only finally rejoiced in. Yet there are those whose 
development, in whole or in part, is arrested. And of those who 
remain incontinent it may be said that they are, in a fundamental 
sense, worse than the vicious* For a person who does what is 
wrong on principle i.e., believing that it is right might con- 
ceivably reform if he were persuaded that what he is doing is 
not right but wrong, "But to the incontinent man," says Aristotle, 
"may be applied the proverb 'when water chokes, what is one 
to wash it down with?* If he had been persuaded of the lightness 
of what he does, he would have desisted when he was persuaded 
to change his mind: but now he acts one way, in spite of having 
been persuaded of the contrary." 

Douglas's Freeport Doctrine was nothing less than a calculated 
indoctrination in incontinence. In so far as it was not sheer 
hypocrisy, it sanctioned the refusal to perform the most solemn 
of recognized constitutional obligations. As such, it was subversive 
of the entire process of moral education in the principles of free 
republican government, Douglas's own Kansas-Nebraska Act had 
said that the people of the territories were subject to the Consti- 
tution in the exercise of their legislative powers. And fidelity 
to the Constitution is the key to the only rational defense of 
his entire career that is possible: that Constitution by virtue of 
which, alone, he held, we existed as a nation. And yet, while 
acknowledging the binding force of Taney's declaration that the 
right of property in slaves had been expressly affirmed in the 
Constitution, he advised the people of Kansas to ignore such a 
right if they did not wish to admit slaveholders into their midst 
We have quoted earlier from Douglas's 1850 speech, in which 
he said that in free countries laws and ordinances am 


nullities unless sustained by hearts and intellects of the people. 
But this was as true of the Constitution of the United States 
as of any of the local laws made by, or in consequence of, its 
authority. It was a mere quibble that he proposed nullifying a 
constitutional right by non-action. For if one such right might 
be nullified by local non-action, with no remedy from federal 
courts or Congress, why might not another right be nullified by 
positive action? The Freeport Doctrine had all the potentialities 
for nullification and disunion that the teachings of Calhoun ex- 
pressed without their intellectual and moral integrity. Lincoln 
agreed, and rightly agreed, in this with the Jefferson Davis school 
of thinking: the Union might, as a political entity, survive by 
recognizing the nationality of slavery and the locality of freedom, 
or by recognizing the locality of slavery and the nationality of 
freedom. But it was impossible that it should recognize the 
nationality of slavery and yet deny the legal consequences of 
that recognition, or that it should recognize the nationality of 
freedom and deny the consequences following from that To say 
that the Constitution carried slavery into the national domain, 
where it might be destroyed by men whose political rights were 
derived solely from that selfsame Constitution, was an anomaly 
in law and morals too gross to be tolerated. Lincoln's final sum- 
mary of the meaning of the Freeport Doctrine came after the 
debates, in his speech in Columbus, Ohio, September 16, 1859. 
Its aphoristic perfection cannot be improved. When you clear 
away all "the trash, the words, the collateral matter/' said Lincoln, 
Douglas's Freeport Doctrine was reduced to this "bare absurdity**: 

... a thing may be lawfully driven away from where it 
has a lawful right to be. 5 

Douglas was too intelligent a man and too sensitive to his own 
loyalty to the Constitution to allow Lincoln an unchallenged ad- 
vantage from this anomaly. His only real attempt at a reply came 
after the joint debates in his Harper's essay of 1859 on ^Popular 
Sovereignty in the Territories." As has been indicated in the 
Preface, a full analysis of his argument therein would go beyond 
the limits of this study. We only notice here that Douglas at- 
tempted to maintain the position that the legislative power of 
the territories was not derived from Congress but that; while 
Congress had the power to establish a government for the 
territories, the government in the territories derived its authority 


from the people in the territories. He likened the action of Con- 
gress in establishing a legislature in the territories to its action 
in establishing United States courts. Congress might establish 
courts, but it might not itself act as a court, nor might it overrule 
decisions of the courts (a proposition in itself highly question- 
able). The courts, according to this thesis, derived their judicial 
power from the inherent nature of judicial power, not from the 
Congress which conferred the judicial power on them. And so 
Congress had the right to confer legislative power on the terri- 
tories but not to exercise it And the power of the territorial 
legislature, although conferred on the territory by Congress, de- 
rived from the inherent right of self-government of the people 
there, which right Congress presumably only recognized when 
it acted to a conf en** 

For our present purposes we wiU merely note that this doctrine 
vindicates Lincoln's attack in that it recognizes the moral im- 
possibility of the position Douglas took during the debates. It at- 
tempts to bottom the Freeport Doctrine on his conception of 
popular sovereignty as a moral principle-although we have 
already seen that this conception cannot bear inspection as a 
moral principle. But, as constitutional doctrine, tie Harper's essay 
will not stand up any better. Lincoln had pointed out during the 
debates that the Kansas-Nebraska Act, like other territorial bills, 
provided for a governor and courts appointed by the President 
and that these shared the legislative authority of tikie territories as 
much as the President and Supreme Court shared tibe legisla- 
tive authority of the United States. Prior to the Kansas-Nebraska 
Act territorial laws had been subject to nullification by Congress 
as weU as veto by the governor* Douglas's bill had been more 
"democratic** than its predessors; but not even Douglas had 
breathed a suggestion in 1854 that the earlier territorial laws, in 
subjecting the territories to such supervision by Congress, had 
been unconstitutional or contrary to the principles of political 
right No one had ever doubted before Douglas's Harper's essay 
and probably no one but Douglas then that Congress had a law- 
ful power to nullify or override territorial legislation, if it chose to 
do w, whether or not the exercise of such power was expedient. 

The right that Congress has, under the Constitution, to admit 
new states has been conceded, then and since, to sanction the 
exercise of all powers necessary and proper to prepare territories 
to become new states* And "necessary and proper" has never been 


interpreted other than liberally in this respect. Strict abstraction 
of the Constitution, whatever may be said for it in other respects, 
would be completely absurd here, for the simple reason that, by 
a strict construction of the Constitution, the nation could never 
have acquired the lands from which the new territories and states 
were formed. 6 For two years Jefferson ruled the newly (and, by 
his own view, unconstitutionally) acquired Louisiana Territory 
despotically, although it had a Creole population approximating 
that of some of the states and the treaty with France had 
guaranteed them United States citizenship. And when Jefferson 
grudgingly admitted local participation in the territorial govern- 
ment, it was on a far more limited basis than the Kansas-Nebraska 
Act (or, indeed, any intervening territorial acts) provided. But 
perhaps more to the point is Douglas's own proposal in regard 
to Utah in 1857. When the Mormon difficulties were at their 
height, Douglas proposed as a possible solution that the territorial 
law be revoked and the inhabitants of Utah be brought under 
complete, direct federal control! In short, Douglas himself was 
prepared to recall the grant of legislative power to the people of 
a territory when they did not exercise it in a sufficiently responsi- 
ble manner. As everyone knows, polygamy was at the bottom of 
the Mormon troubles, and Douglas would have taken any and 
all steps that might have been required to see that no state of 
the Union would ever sanction that indubitably "domestic" institu- 
tion. The Republican party, we should add, was dedicated from 
its inception to the extinction of those "twin relics of barbarism,** 
polygamy and slavery. And Douglas never defended the right of 
the people anywhere to choose, if they would, the former of the 

The Constitution cannot then entrust to Congress such a task 
as that of ensuring that new states be "republican'* m form mean* 
ing practically thereby that they have institutions compatible with 
harmonious membership in a union with the other states while 
denying to Congress legislative power when and where the insti- 
tutions of future states axe being formed. It may be doubted as 
Jefferson doubted that the Constitution grants Congress power to 
acquire new territory. Yet Douglas was tie most violently expan- 
sionist national leader the country has ever seen, the last man 
in the world to have suggested constitutional doubts of such a 
kind. And Congress could not possibly fulfill its undoubted duty 


to prepare acquired lands for statehood if it did not have 
legislative power in the territories. And this again could not be 
true if the territorial legislature had other than a derivative, con- 
ditional, legislative right. The Harper's essay only adds to the con- 
fusion inherent in the Freeport Doctrine. 

In presenting the case for Douglas we have represented him 
as the enemy of Know-Notibingism and of all the snobbery 
and class consciousness engendered by the hostility of the older 
Anglo-Saxon stock for the new floods of immigrants. Yet Douglas, 
in opposing Anglo-Saxon prejudices, did so by cultivating the 
prejudices of the Irish, both for the British and for the Negro. 
Lincoln, however, opposed all prejudices, so far as they under- 
mined the "ancient faith 9 which he believed to be the necessary 
condition of all political and moral well-being in a free popular 
republic. In his Dred Scott speech, wherein Lincoln gave his 
classic exposition of the meaning of the Declaration as the 
standard maxim of a free society, he drew an inference from this 
thesis which not only illustrated Ms point but also constituted a 
challenge to the mistaken devotion of the Irish for Douglas: 

I had thought the Declaration promised something better 
than the condition of British subjects; but no, it meant only 
that we should be equal to them in their own oppressed and 
unequal condition. According to that, it gave no promise that 
having kicked off the King and Lords of Great Britain, we 
should not at once be saddled with a King and Lords of 
our own. 7 

Lincoln too could twist the lion's tail, but he did so only to assert 
an obligation on Americans to achieve greater justice among 
themselves, in consequence of their free principles, than was to 
be found in any polity of the old world. Lincoln was absolutely 
convinced, old-line Whig though he had been, that the only hope 
of the new immigrants of being assimilated into American life 
on terms of general equality was in and through the religious 
cultivation of the universal creed of the Declaration. In his 
Chicago speech of July 10, 1858, Lincoln sounded a theme which 
echoed through the debates. He spoke of the annual celebration 
of independence, as he always loved to do, in terms which suggest 
nothing so much as the Feast of the Passover, celebrating the 


deliverance of the Hebrew people from Pharaohs Egypt, or of 
Easter, celebrating the deliverance of the world from original sin. 

We hold 'this annual celebration to remind ourselves of aE 
the good done in this process of time, of how it was done 
and who did it, and how we are historically connected with 
it, and we go from these meetings in better humor with our- 
selves-we feel more attached the one to the other, and more 
firmly bound to the country we inhabit. In every way we 
are better men in the age, and race, and country in which 
we live for these celebrations. But ... there is something 
else connected with it We have besides these men-de- 
scended by blood from our ancestors-among us perhaps half 
our people who are not descendants at all of these men, they 
are men who have come from Europe Gtennan, Irish, 
French and Scandinavian men that have come from Europe 
themselves, or whose ancestors have come hither and have 
settled here, finding 'themselves our equals in all things* If 
they look back through this history to brace their connection 
with those days by blood, they find they have none, they 
cannot carry themselves back into that glorious epoch and 
make themselves feel that they are part of us, but when they 
look through that old Declaration of Independence they find 
that those old men say that "We hold these truths to be self- 
evident, that all men are created equal," and then they feel 
that that moral sentiment taught in that day evidences their 
relation to those men, that it is the father of all moral 
principle in them, and that they have a right to claim it as 
though they were blood of the blood, and flesh of the fiesh 
of the men who wrote 'that Declaration, and so they are. 
This is the electric cord in that Declaration that links the 
hearts of patriotic and libearty-loving men together, that will 
link those patriotic hearts as long as the love of freedom exists 
in the minds of men throughout the world. 8 

We may compare the foregoing with the following typical egres- 
sion by Douglas in his opening speech at Ottawa: 

I do not question Mr* Lincoln's consdentfous belief that 
the negro was made his equal, and hence is his brother, but 
for my own part, I do not regard the aegro as say equal* and 
positively deny that he is my brother or any Ida to me what- 
ever. 9 


Such sallies, as may be gathered, caused much hilarity. But the 
serious contrast is as weighty as anything in the joint debates, 
Lincoln insisted, what every political philosopher has always 
recognized, that there must be some conviction, usually embodied 
in the form of a story that can be told, comprehended, and taken 
to heart by all, which produces a sense of community and unites 
the hearts of 'those who call themselves fellow citizens. Without 
that fellow feeling there is no basis for mutual trust, and where 
there is no trust there can be no freedom. For political self- 
government involves governing and being governed, and where 
there is insufficient trust, the idea of making others the trustees, 
for however limited a time, of our dearest interests does not make 
sense. And the only possible basis for the unity of a people as 
heterogeneous in origin as the American people was one which 
transcended their different origins. Such unity could not be found 
in any revealed religious teaching, because they were as divided 
in this respect as in any other, Lincoln did, however, in retelling 
our history, cast it in a form which reflected the common elements 
within the sectarian diversity, as we have seen in the Lyceum 
speech. But the doctrinal basis of this patriotic history was the 
universal statement in the Declaration, a statement which must 
be understood as comprehending the Negro if it were to be 
understood in a way which would unite white men. 

No one who knows anything of the explosive hatreds involved 
in the clash of Americans of different origins, in consequence of 
the great tides of immigration before and after the Civil War, 
can doubt that they contained vast possibilities for caste and 
class oppressions, oppressions which might have rivaled if they 
did not exceed those of the enslaved Negro. Indeed, the oppres- 
sions that did exist in the later nineteenth century, in the slums 
of the great cities, in the factories and in the mines, were bad 
enough* Yet they have proved in large measure transient, and it 
would be difficult to find any considerable group, unless it be the 
American Indian, whose position, having once been depressed in 
relation to other groups, has not been ameliorated. And no group 
since the Civil War has been so hopelessly degraded as was the 
Negro, slave and free, in the decades before the Civil War. If 
this is true, it is so because, and only because, although class and 
caste oppressions may have existed in fact, they have never 
since been defended, or defensible, as a matter of fig/if, before 


the American people as a whole. That the nation as a whole has 
never been able to defend inequality as the South defended slav- 
ery may be traced, so far as any great political effects can be 
traced, to Lincoln's success in opposing Douglas as a leader of 
"American political public opinion." 

Chapter XVII 

The Meaning of Equality: Abstract and 

To THE foregoing argument there is, however, one massive 
objection. In brief, this objection amounts to the charge that Lin- 
coln never really believed in the principles of the Declaration of 
Independence and that he never espoused them further than 
suited his own personal and party purposes. The evidence for this 
charge is that, although Lincoln insisted in tihe "abstract, 1 * that the 
Negro undoubtedly had the same right as the white man to life, 
liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, he was no more willing than 
Douglas to secure those rights; i.e., to accord to the Negro the 
concrete means to their enjoyment. For it is indubitably true that, 
from the first raising of the slavery-extension issue in 1854 by the 
repeal of the Missouri Compromise, but never more emphatically 
than in the joint debates, Lincoln pronounced himself against any 
measure to bring about the political or social equality of the white 
and black races. Because of tibds Lincoln's consistency, if not his 
sincerity, has been widely questioned. And the view has been 
spread that Lincoln adhered to the universalism of the Declara- 
tion so long as, but only so long as, it kept pace with the interests 
of the Republican party and with his interests as a Republican 
leader. In this vein, and in line with revisionism's depreciation of 
the debates, Professor Randall insists that in 1858 "big and 
fundamental things about slavery and the Negro were not on the 
agenda of national parties/* 1 

The case against Lincoln, on the ground that he limited himself 
to an "abstract** condemnation of slavery, a condemnation which 


issued only in the condemnation of the extension of slavery, upon 
which alone northern abolitionists and Negrophobes agreed, has 
been stated with great sharpness in a brilliant essay on Lincoln 
by Professor Richard Hofstadter in his The American Political 
Tradition. 2 Hofstadter, it should be remarked, does not share 
the political orientation of revisionism, which makes Douglas the 
hero of the effort to avoid the "needless war." Yet his historiogra- 
phy, apart from some highly personal interpretations, seems to be 
based largely upon revisionism. We shall present some marked 
instances of this. On the whole, Hofstadter's political sympathies 
appear to lean toward abolitionism. Randall, Milton, Craven, and 
others of their school blame Lincoln, with varying degrees of 
acerbity, for insisting at all upon the universal meaning of the 
Declaration and making the moral condemnation of slavery a po- 
litical question. Hofstadter, however, approves of this but believes 
that the same argument which condemned slavery should have 
compelled Lincoln to condemn the political inequality which he 
tolerated. His conclusion with respect to Lincoln, however, is 
identical with that of revisionism: the pre-presidential Lincoln 
was above all a demagogue who thought much of what was neces- 
sary to get himself elected and little of the consequences to the 
country of his being elected. 

Professor Hofstadter describes with admirable clarity the prac- 
tical political problem Lincoln faced and the formula with which 
he solved it. Lincoln's campaigns reconciled the demands both of 
abolitionists, for whom opposition to slavery was paramount, and 
the demands of those who cared nothing that the Negro was 
enslaved, so long as he was kept out of the territories, whether 
as a freeman or a slave, where they and their children might 
wish to go. Lincoln's trick, according to Hofstadter, was to invoke 
the full moral weight of the Declaration of Independence for the 
extremely limited demand of keeping slavery out of Kansas and 
Nebraska (where Hofstadter, in common with the revisionists, 
does not believe it would have gone anyway). According to 
Hofstadter, Lincoln's success in enforcing this demand while rec- 
onciling (practically, not logically) the divergent and conflicting 
viewpoints of his followers "entitles him to a place among the 
world's great political propagandists." Clearly, however, Hof- 
stadter does not believe that Lincoln's success entitles hf to any 
place at all among the world's great moralists. 


Hofstadter's charge against the integrity of Lincoln's posi- 
tion may best be gathered from the following passage of his 
essay: **. . . [Lincoln's] strategy of appealing to abolitionists and 
Negrophobes at once, involved him in embarrassing contradic- 
tions. In Northern Illinois he spoke in one vein before abolition- 
minded audiences, but farther south, where settlers of Southern 
extraction were dominant, he spoke in another. It is instructive 
to compare what he said about the Negro in Chicago with what 
he said in Charleston. 

Chicago, July 10, 1858: 

Let us discard all this quibbling about this man and the 
other man, this race and that race and the other race being 
inferior, and therefore must be placed in an inferior position. 
Let us discard all these things, and unite as one people 
throughout this land, until we shall once more stand up 
declaring that all men are created equal. 

Charleston, September 18, 1858: 

I will say, then, that I am not, nor ever have been, in favor 
of bringing about in any way the social and political equality 
of the white and black races: that I am not, nor ever have 
been, in favor of making voters or jurors of negroes, nor of 
qualifying them to hold office, nor to intermarry with white 
people . . . 

And inasmuch as they cannot so live, while they do remain 
together there must be the position of superior and inferior, 
and I as much as any other man am in favor of having the 
superior position assigned to the white race. 

It is not easy to decide whether the true Lincoln is the one who 
spoke in Chicago or the one who spoke in Charleston. Possibly 
the man devoutly believed each of the utterances at the time he 
delivered it; possibly his mind too was a house divided against 
itself. In any case it is easy to see in all this the behavior of a 
professional politician looking for votes." 

That Lincoln was a professional politician and vote getter may 
be freely granted, but the case for democracy, we believe, rests 
upon the possibility that this occupation may be an honorable one. 
Nay, more, we believe, with Woodrow Wilson, that the example 
of Lincoln is of crucial significance in the evidence it supplies 
concerning this possibility. Hofstadter would have us believe that 


the evidence of the pre-presidential Lincoln, at least, is not evi- 
dence to suggest the possibility of reconciling the demands of the 
vocation of democratic politics with the demands of honor. The 
passages presented above suggest, moreover, not only a funda- 
mental inconsistency of view but a base adaptation of Lincoln's 
professions to suit the prejudices of the immediate audience. Let 
us turn first to this lesser charge, the charge of trimming. 

Hof stadter has taken over the trimming charge ( as he indicates ) , 
as well as the inconsistency charge, from Douglas, who made them 
in the Galesburg debate. Lincoln, in his reply to the trimming 
charge which reply, however, Hofstadter omits to mention- 
observed first of all: 

When the Judge says . . . that I make speeches of one sort 
for the people of the northern end of the state, and of a 
different sort for the southern people, he assumes that I do 
not understand that my speeches will be put in print and 
read North and South. I knew all the while that the speech 
that I made at Chicago and the one I made at Jonesboro 
and the one at Charleston, would all be put in print and 
all the reading and intelligent men in the community would 
see them and know all about my opinions. 3 

The foregoing is part of Lincoln's immediate response at Gales- 
burg, but he added to it at Quincy after Douglas had again 
pressed the attack: 

Now I wish to show you, that . . . before I made the speech 
at Charleston, which the Judge [and Professor Hofstadter] 
quotes from, he had himself heard me say substantially the 
same thing. It was in our first meeting, at Ottawa . . . 
[where] I read an extract from an old speech of mine, made 
nearly four years ago, not merely to show my sentiments, but 
to show that my sentiments were long entertained and openly 
expressed; in which extract I expressly declared that my own 
feelings would not admit a social and political equality be- 
tween the white and black races, and that even if my own 
feelings would admit of it, I still knew that the public 
sentiment of the country would not, and that such a thing 
was an utter impossibility, or substantially that ... At the 


end of the quotation ... I made the comments . . . which 
I will now read, and ask you to notice how very nearly they 
are the same as Judge Douglas says were delivered by me 
down in Egypt 4 

We will not reproduce the entire extract here, since it will be 
required a little later. But in the course of it Lincoln did say, 
besides much more to the same effect, "I have no purpose to 
introduce political and social equality between the white and 
black races." After reading he continued: 

I now make this comment: That speech from which I have 
now read . . . was made way up north in the Abolition 
district of this state par excellence in the Lovejoy district- 
in the personal presence of Lovejoy It had been made and 
put in print in that region only three days less than a month 
before the speech at Charleston, the like of which Judge 
Douglas thinks I would not make where there was any 
Abolition element. 5 

It seems to us that this is a full and complete refutation of at 
least one half of the trimming charge, viz., that Lincoln trimmed 
his "inegalitarianism" in the North. As to his trimming his egali- 
tarianism to the southward, it is true that we do not find the 
flaming invocations of the Declaration at Jonesboro, Alton, or 
Charleston. But the campaign was spread over four months, dur- 
ing which the candidates were continuously speaking, and it 
would be difficult to pin down the trimming charge on the ground 
that Lincoln did not say at these three places what he had said 
dozens of times elsewhere and what the people in these southern 
parts of the state must have known Lincoln had often said if they 
knew anything about him at all. Paul Angle, in his introduction 
to the new edition of the Lincoln-Douglas debates, says of the 
campaign, "In two ways, it makes journalistic history. For the first 
time correspondents traveled with the candidates, and for the first 
time a series of political speeches was reported stenographically." 
This would tend to substantiate Lincoln's assertion that he knew 
his speeches would be read in all parts of the state. More pertinent, 
however, is the fact that Lincoln's two great speeches preceding 
the campaign, the Peoria speech of 1854 and the speech on the 
Dred Scott decision in 1857, were both delivered in Springfield, 
which belonged both geographically and politically to the south- 
ern part of the state. Indeed, the Republicans never carried Lin- 


coin's home county, either in 1858 or 1860. And both of these 
speeches contain, in the most emphatic way, Lincoln's assertion 
of the universalism of the Declaration, its inclusion of the Negro, 
and its moral condemnation of slavery. And both also contain 
denials on Lincoln's part, as he said in the Dred Scott speech, 
of "that counterfeit logic which concludes that, because I do not 
want a black woman for a slave I must necessarily want her for 
a wife." 

Let us say in concluding our discussion on this picayune but 
troublesome point that we would be surprised if anyone could 
find any political speeches in which the speaker did not make 
some adaptations to the known prejudices of his audience. And 
we are certain that this was true of both Lincoln and Douglas. 
Lincoln's rhetorical maxim was ever "that a drop of honey catches 
more flies than a gallon of gall." But it is one thing to approach 
an audience by emphasizing the points the speaker has in common 
with it and another to misrepresent his position to it. There is 
no evidence that Lincoln deliberately suppressed anything in the 
South that he had said in the North and positive evidence that he 
did not suppress in the North what he had said in the South. 
The imputation of baseness in Douglas's charge may be put 
down as campaign oratory. One cannot say as much of Professor 
Hofstadter's repetition of the charge and his failure to report Lin- 
coln's answer to it 

The one time in the joint debates when Lincoln may have lost 
his temper was at Jonesboro. The Douglas newspapers, quoting 
the senator, had circulated the charge that Lincoln had been so 
overcome at Ottawa that he had had to be carried from the plat- 
form. Lincoln had been carried on the shoulders of some of his 
enthusiastic admirers, but Douglas insisted that he had to be 
carried. After some pretty strong and highly personal language 
Lincoln remarked, "But really I have talked about this matter 
perhaps longer that I ought, for it is no great thing, and yet the 
smallest things are often the most difficult to deal with." And so 
it is with this foolish trimming charge which has stuck through a 
century, although Lincoln gave the lie to the most important part 
of it at Quincy, if not at Galesburg. But although the trimming 
charge cannot stand on its own feet, it has in all likelihood been 
believed by many because they have accepted the truth of the 
inconsistency charge, and this is a most serious matter. In what, 


precisely, Lincoln's inconsistency is alleged to have lain is con- 
cisely summarized in a note appended by Hofstadter to the pas- 
sage from his essay reproduced above. It runs as follows: 

Lincoln was fond of asserting that the Declaration of 
Independence, when it said that all men are created equal, 
included the Negro. He believed the Negro was probably 
inferior to the white man, he kept repeating, but in his right 
to eat, without anyone's leave, the bread he earned by his 
own labor, the Negro was the equal of any white man. Still 
he was opposed to citizenship for the Negro. How any man 
could be expected to defend his right to enjoy the fruits of 
his labor without having the power to defend it through his 
vote, Lincoln did not say. In his Peoria speech he had himself 
said: "No man is good enough to govern another man, without 
that man's consent." In one of his magnificent private memo- 
randa on slavery Lincoln argued that anyone who defends 
the moral right of slavery creates an ethic by which his own 
enslavement may be justified. But the same reasoning applies 
to anyone who would deny the Negro citizenship. It is im- 
possible to avoid the conclusion that so far as the Negro was 
concerned, Lincoln could not escape the moral insensitivity 
that is characteristic of the average white American. 

In entering this particular inquiry it would be well to remind 
ourselves of Sir Winston Churchill's definition of political consist- 
ency, which was given in an earlier chapter. 6 Mere verbal 
consistency is no criterion of genuine consistency in politics. In 
fact, genuine verbal inconsistency may be a requirement of true 
political consistency. We have applied tests based upon such prem- 
ises to Douglas's policies and have seen a very large measure of 
political consistency in all he said and did. If Douglas's policies 
were wrong, it was certainly not because they were inconsistent; 
it was because they were based upon a consistent refusal to ac- 
cept the consequences of the true meaning of "all men are created 
equal." Fidelity to a cause, rather than to a stock formula of 
words, is what we have a right to demand of a statesman. Dif- 
ferent words may advance the same cause in different circum- 
stances, and sometimes words of contrary bearing must be used 
at the same time to advance that cause in given circumstances. 
A statesman has only a limited control of the conditions within 
which he must act. If, within the limits of his control, he acts 


inconsistently with the ends of true policy, he is justly to be 
blamed. If, however, he professes no intention to alter those con- 
ditions which are beyond his control, even though the goal with 
which we identify him would make it appear desirable to alter 
them, then no sane man will denounce him. The problem of ap- 
plying the moral judgment of history to a statesman requires, 
therefore, a fourfold criterion: first, is the goal a worthy one; 
second, does the statesman judge wisely as to what is and what 
is not within his power; third, are the means selected apt to pro- 
duce the intended results; and fourth, in "inconsistently" denying 
any intention to do those things which he could not in any case 
do, does he say or do anything to hinder future statesmen from 
more perfectly attaining his goal when altered conditions bring 
more of that goal within the range of possibility? On all these 
counts we believe it can be demonstrated that Lincoln spoke and 
acted with perfect consistency. 

How conscious Lincoln was of this problem we have already 
seen when Lincoln answered the argument of Douglas and 
Taney that the Fathers and Signers could not have included the 
Negro in "all men are created equal" and then have continued 
to hold slaves themselves or represent slaveholding communities. 
The men who secured our independence and founded the gov- 
ernment, said Lincoln, certainly believed all men had certain un- 
alienable rights. But if they had attempted to secure all the rights 
of all men they would have ended in no rights secured for any 
men. The truth of the proposition, or the sincerity of their inten- 
tion, was in no wise impugned by the moderation of their actions. 
In the same Chicago speech of July 10, 1858, from which Hof- 
stadter (following Douglas) has quoted, Lincoln also spoke as 

. . . there are certain conditions that make necessities and 
impose them upon us, and to the extent that a necessity is 
imposed upon a man he must submit to it. I think that was 
the condition in which we found ourselves when we estab- 
lished this government. We had slavery among us, we could 
not get our constitution unless we permitted them to remain 
in slavery, we could not secure the good we did secure if 
we grasped for more, and having by necessity submitted to 
that much, it does not destroy the principle that is the charter 
of our liberties. 7 


Thus Lincoln understood the task of statesmanship as we have 
described it: to know what is good or right, to know how much 
of that good is attainable, and to act to secure that much good 
but not to abandon the attainable good by grasping for more. Now 
Lincoln's task from 1854 on, as he saw it, was to place slavery 
where it would be in course of ultimate extinction. This, he was 
convinced, could be done by arresting the spread of slavery, by 
confining slavery within its existing limits. A necessary condition 
of such an achievement was to restore the Missouri Compromise 
slavery restriction. Lincoln undoubtedly would have done more; 
e.g., he would have revived the Wilmot Proviso limitation if that 
were feasible. Evidence of this may be found in the law the Re- 
publicans passed outlawing slavery in all the territories in 1862. 
To this law we will return later. But Lincoln's policy was not only 
to concentrate upon the possible but to proceed a step at a time. 
Indeed, only by such caution could he discover how much weight 
the ground he was on would bear. For one must not forget the 
reverse of the policy just stated: Lincoln believed, revisionists to 
the contrary notwithstanding, not only that slavery might be 
placed in course of ultimate extinction but that if it was not so 
placed it might become national, lawful in all the states, North 
as well as South, old as well as new. In other words, the issue, as 
Lincoln saw it, was not merely whether slavery would be per- 
petuated within its existing boundaries but whether slavery or 
freedom would be placed in course of ultimate extinction. That 
is the meaning of the house divided speech. The fate of the anti- 
slavery coalition, a coalition made up, as he also said in the house 
divided speech, "of strange, discordant, and even, hostile ele- 
ments," depended, in his judgment, on the success of his personal 
leadership. For he believed that the eastern leaders who thought 
they could coalesce with Douglas after Lecompton were pro- 
foundly mistaken. Thus Lincoln was convinced in 1858, as in 1863, 
that upon the success of the policy for which he stood, and with 
which he was identified, the question would be decided of 
whether free, popular government was to survive. With such a 
sense of almost more-than-human responsibility Lincoln would not 
risk the good he believed he could secure by grasping at more. 
Hofstadter does not deny that Lincoln's policy in 1858 was well 
iesigned to accomplish what it was avowedly designed to accom- 
plish; namely, the exclusion of slavery from the territories by the 
creating of a major party possessing the political means to enforce 


such a policy. Nor does he question the proposition that the state 
of opinion in the country was such that, had Lincoln announced 
any intention to do more to secure the rights of the Negro than 
to place the Negro's captivity "in course of ultimate extinction," 
in the foregoing sense, Lincoln would have ruined his cause along 
with himself. Lincoln said over and again that he believed opinion 
was well-nigh universal in the country against any more equality 
for the Negro than that implied in a policy of turning slavery 
back on its existing legal rights in the slave states. How true Lin- 
coln believed this to be we may further gather from two letters 
he wrote to Chase in June 1859. Chase was more of a radical 
than Lincoln and was particularly conspicuous for his opposition 
to the fugitive slave law of 1850. Lincoln had read that the Re- 
publican State Convention of Ohio had adopted as a plank in 
its platform the proposal to "repeal . . . the atrocious Fugitive 
Slave Law." And Lincoln concluded his first letter as follows: 

I enter upon no argument one way or another; but I assure 
you the cause of Republicanism is hopeless in Illinois, if it 
can be in any way made responsible for that plank. 

And again, at the conclusion of the second letter, he wrote: 

My only object was to impress you with what I believe 
is true, that the introduction of a proposition for the repeal 
of the Fugitive Slave law, into the next Republican National 
Convention, will explode the Convention and the party. 8 

Professor Hofstadter has given Lincoln full credit for political 
astuteness, and we do not think he disputes the accuracy of the 
judgment expressed above. But how much more true would it 
have been of any wildly visionary scheme ( as it would then have 
appeared) for full Negro citizenship? The only hypothesis upon 
which such a proposal would not have "exploded" the party would 
be that the proposer would have been quietly confined as a luna- 
tic. But he assuredly could not have led the Republican party in 
Illinois in the year 1858. To conclude this portion of the argu- 
ment we would address a question to anyone who, like Professor 
Hofstadter, believes that Lincoln should have demanded the vote 
for Negroes in 1858, at the same time that he demanded the 
enforcement of a policy looking to the end of their enslavement. 
Was it more important to lead to victory the anti-slavery party 
which then existed, and existed on a very tenuous foundation, or 


to proclaim a policy of full interracial equality, a proclamation 
that would have wrecked that party, leaving a pro-slavery party 
in control of the national government? We concede that such a 
counsel of "perfection" may be demanded in the name of morality. 
And it may be that obedience to such counsels gain a man the 
kingdom of heaven. But we believe it is as demonstrable as any- 
thing in politics can be that, had Lincoln acted upon it, he would 
have acted to perpetuate the hell of slavery on earth. 

Hofstadter has said, 'It is impossible to avoid the conclusion 
that so far as the Negro was concerned, Lincoln could not escape 
the moral insensitivity that is characteristic of the average white 
American." We may doubt that that man was insensitive to the 
claims of the Negro's humanity who could write to his most inti- 
mate friend that the sight of slaves "was a continued torment to 
me," and, "It is hardly fair for you to assume, that I have no 
interest in a thing which has, and continually exercises, the power 
of making me miserable. You ought rather to appreciate how much 
the great body of the Northern people do crucify their feelings, 
in order to maintain their loyalty to the Constitution and the 
Union." 9 We do not believe anyone with moral sensitivity can 
read through the body of Lincoln's speeches on the slavery ques- 
tion without becoming aware of the intensity of the passions he 
suppressed, as well as those to which he gave vent. We do not 
believe anyone who is conscious of the larger meaning of states- 
manship to Lincoln can fail to be aware how real was the 
crucifixion which he believed had to be suffered for the sake of 
political salvation. We do not believe anyone with moral sensi- 
tivity could say of this man that he was "never much troubled 
about the Negro . . ." 

Hofstadter's accusation that Lincoln showed the "moral insensi- 
tivity . . . of the average white American" is suggestive of Gunnar 
Myrdal's massive work, An American Dilemma, the subtitle of 
which is The Negro Problem and Modern Democracy. 10 In his 
preface Myrdal writes as follows: 

The "American Dilemma," referred to in the title of this 
book, is the ever-raging conflict between, on the one hand, 
the valuations preserved on the general plane which we shall 
call the "American Creed," where the American thinks, talks, 
and acts under the influence of high national and Christian 


precepts, and, on the other hand, the valuations on the 
specific plane of individual and group living, where personal 
and local interests . . , jealousies; considerations of prestige 
and conformity; group prejudice . . . dominate his outlook. 

But the American dilemma, that "ever-raging conflict," is, in 
Myrdal's formulation, a moral dilemma, a dilemma arising from 
the sensitivity of the average American to the demands of the 
American creed, a sensitivity which rebels against the demands 
of his prejudices, even as his prejudices rebel against the demands 
of his creed. That such a conflict has characterized the moral life 
of the American people we fully concede. But we insist, with 
Myrdal, against Hofstadter, that such a struggle is as much 
indicative of sensitivity as of insensitivity. And we deny that the 
peculiarly American tension, arising from recognition of the de- 
mands of equality on the one hand and the practical denial of 
some of those demands on the other, is in any just sense a morbid 
condition. It is, on the contrary, the typical condition in which 
political justice must be sought 

It is generally conceded that the Declaration of Independence 
is an authoritative expression of the American creed. But it has 
escaped the attention of Myrdal and of many others that the 
dilemma which he has celebrated is nof, as he has thought, be- 
tween general and specific valuations, between precept and 
practice, between ideal and reality. The American dilemma is 
embodied in the Declaration of Independence itself. If the 
dilemma exists at all, it is in the structure of the ideal, which 
issues in a dual imperative. For the Declaration of Independence 
does indeed say that all men are created equal. But by reason 
of this very equality governments are said to derive their just 
powers from the consent of the governed. Now the meaning of 
the expression "consent of the governed" is open to much inter- 
pretation. However, if the consent of the governed may rightfully 
be withdrawn from any government which the people do not be- 
lieve secures their unalienable rights in a satisfactory manner, we 
believe that the consent of the governed cannot be interpreted 
in a merely hypothetical sense; it cannot be merely passive; it 
must embody the opinion of the governed. There is no question, 
at any rate, that for Lincoln, no less than for Professor Hofstadter, 
a government which did not, in the manner of a representative 
democracy, embody popular opinion was not a legitimate govern- 


ment. Indeed, in Lincoln's Peoria speech of 1854 (first delivered 
in Springfield in "southern" Illinois) he made his most radically 
democratic statement of his pre-presidential career. After saying, 
as we have seen above, that the principle that no man is good 
enough to govern another without that other's consent is the sheet 
anchor of American republicanism, he went on to declare, "Allow 
ALL the governed an equal voice in the government, and that, 
and that only, is self-government." 11 From this it is clear that 
Lincoln at least held no medieval notions of "passive" consent. 
Consent meant for him, as for any Jeffersonian Democrat, active 
participation, an "equal voice in the government." For our pur- 
poses, then, consent of the governed must mean the opinion of 
those who have an equal voice in the government, a voice to 
which all the governed are entitled. 

Now the opinion of the governed, unfortunately for the Utopians 
of this world, does not always favor the full and unequivocal rec- 
ognition of that very equality which, alas, constitutes the title 
deeds of its own authority. Nay, more, the opinion of the 
governed may deny that all men are created equal. The crisis of 
the house divided had arisen because a very considerable portion 
of the American people had turned its back on the truth upon 
which its own rights depended. Lincoln exhorted them again 
and again to turn back into the right and true path. He firmly 
believed that the explicit renunciation of the central tenet of hu- 
man equality created a revolutionary situation: without such rec- 
ognition, without this "sheet anchor," the ship of state was adrift, 
and there was no security for any of the rights for which govern- 
ments are instituted. For Lincoln the recognition of the "abstract" 
truth was not barren of practical consequences just because it 
was abstract. On the contrary, it was a necessary condition of 
every political good. Professor Randall says that Lincoln "cited 
Clay as showing that equality was abstract; you could not apply 
it." 12 This is erroneous. Lincoln said that, according to Clay, the 
equality proposition in the Declaration "is true as an abstract 
principle . . . but ... we cannot practically apply it in all 
cases." 18 For Lincoln the equality principle meant that slavery 
should if possible be excluded from the foundations of any so- 
ciety; but it also meant that it should guide legislators in any 
existing society, teaching them to produce equal security for the 
rights of all the governed to as great a degree as conditions would 
permit. This was Lincoln's doctrine of the "standard maxim," to 


which we have sufficiently adverted. But supreme among the con- 
ditions which must limit the wise legislator's actions in a free so- 
ciety is the opinion of the governed, to which he is duty bound 
by the principle of equality itself. 

If the only thing that counted, the only thing that created 
obligation for the statesman, was the goal of equality of condition 
i.e., equality of security for the unalienable rights of man then 
the idea of popular government would be an absurdity. To see 
that each man received his "equal" measure we would have to 
have philosopher-kings, endowed with absolute power, to decree 
and enforce what metaphysicians alone would know how to ex- 
pound. But if, for good and sufficient reasons, we will not risk 
the only condition upon which absolute justice seems attainable, 
then we must be prepared to accept that lesser form of justice 
which tempers the demand for equality with the demand for con- 
sent. Political justice, as a compound of equality and consent, re- 
quires deference to opinions which deny manij of the implications 
of "abstract" equality, just as it required the repudiation of 
opinions which deny any of the implications of such equality. 

In the Peoria speech, in a passage he was to read to his audience 
in the first debate at Ottawa four years later, Lincoln said: 

What next? Free them, and make them politically and so- 
cially, our equals? My own feelings will not admit of this; 
and if mine would, we well know that those of the great 
mass of white people will not. Whether this feeling accords 
with justice and sound judgment, is not the sole question, 
if indeed, it is any part of it. A universal feeling, whether 
well or ill founded, can not be safely disregarded. 

And later in the same speech he also said: 

. . . the Judge has no very vivid impression that the Negro 
is a human; and consequently has no idea that there can be 
any moral question in legislating about him. In his view, the 
question of whether a new country shall be slave or free, is 
a matter of as utter indifference, as it is whether his neighbor 
shall plant his farm with tobacco, or stock it with horned 
cattle. Now whether this view is right or wrong, it is very 
certain that the great mass of mankind take a totally different 
view. They consider slavery a great moral wrong; and their 
feeling against it, is not evanescent, but eternal. It lies at the 


very foundation of their sense of justice; and it cannot be 
trifled with. It is a great and durable element of popular 
action, and I think, no statesman can safely disregard it 14 

In these two passages we can see the twin poles which constituted 
the axis upon which Lincoln's conception of political justice 
rotated. Lincoln was equally dedicated to the principle of equality 
and the principle of consent. Statesmanship, for him, consisted 
in finding that common denominator in existing circumstances 
which was the highest degree of equality for which general con- 
sent could be obtained. To insist upon more equality than men 
would consent to have would require turning to force or to the 
arbitrary rule of the few. But to turn to oligarchy, as a means 
of enforcing equality, would itself involve a repudiation of 
equality in the sense of the Declaration. Precisely because all men 
are created equal, we have an equal duty to work for equality 
and to seek consent. Lincoln did not believe he had a moral 
right to deprecate the opinion of his countrymen which denied 
political equality to Negroes. To have done so would have meant 
denying the right of white men to judge the conditions under 
which their government could best secure their rights. But the 
Declaration of Independence asserts that the people have an 
indefeasible right to judge of the security of their rights, and Lin- 
coln could not deny the legitimacy of their judgment concerning 
the status to be accorded the Negro without denying that right. 
Lincoln's middle ground, between equality and consent, which is 
actually the middle ground between the two aspects of equality, 
is the only thoroughly consistent ground which the principles of 
the Declaration sanction. Lincoln never ceased to summon the 
people to fidelity to the principle of equality, considered as the 
principle of abstract justice. He would not abandon equality, as 
Douglas had done, when equality proved unpopular or inconven- 
ient. But neither would he abandon equality's other face, re- 
flected in the opinion of the governed who made up the political 
community of the United States. Because of the requirement of 
consent, Lincoln felt a duty to adjust public policy to the moral 
sense of the community. In the tension between equality and con- 
sent, in the necessity to cling to both and abandon neither, but 
to find the zone between which advances the public good, is the 
creative task of the statesman. For this task there is no formula; 
for the wise statesman there is no substitute. 


The meaning of the Declaration, and the rights which Negroes 
might justly claim in consequence of its principles, has been 
greatly misunderstood. Hofstadter approves highly of Lincoln's 
anti-slavery argument, by which, in his words, "anyone who de- 
fends the moral right of slavery creates an ethic by which his own 
enslavement may be justified." "But," Hofstadter continues, "the 
same reasoning applies to anyone who would deny the Negro 
citizenship." This, however, is not correct. Slavery involves the 
denial of an "unalienable right," the right to liberty, which all 
men have, according to the Declaration, by the laws of nature 
and of nature's God. But the privileges of citizenship are not 
unalienable natural rights but civil rights, to be determined by 
a civil process. In that civil process the opinions of the members 
who constitute each civil society may rightfully legislate the terms 
and conditions by which those who are not members may be per- 
mitted to enjoy the advantages of this society. 

Let us remind ourselves of the conception of the origin of civil 
society implicit in the Declaration. Men who are originally equal 
no one having more authority over another than the other has 
over him join together in order better to secure the rights that 
each has in virtue of his humanity but which he cannot enjoy 
except in and through association with his fellows. The authority 
which arises from their so combining rests upon unanimity, in 
that no man who does not consent to join is a member, nor is 
any man who is not accepted a member. Those who form a civil 
society do so for their better security, and no man is obliged 
to join who does not feel that his joining makes him more secure, 
and no man need be accepted whose joining does not make the 
others feel more secure. Whoever does not join a civil society, at 
its founding, has no claim to the advantages of a citizen, nor does 
the civil society founded have a right to impose upon him the 
obligations of a citizen. This does not mean that citizens and non- 
citizens may treat each other unjustly. A non-citizen who benefits 
a country that is not his own e.g., a Lafayette deserves that 
country's gratitude. And a non-citizen who enjoys the protection 
of the laws of a country not his own incurs obligations in pro- 
portion to the benefits he enjoys. Still the duty not to injure others 
and to repay benefits, etc., are duties which men have toward 
each other irrespective of the bond of civil society. They exist 
in the state of nature, and the obligations of non-members of a 
given civil society to members is the same as it was before the 


formation of the civil society in question. Now, however, although 
unanimity establishes civil society, it cannot continue to be the 
basis of decision. Legislation must be by majority rule, because 
it is the nearest practicable approximation to unanimity and dero- 
gates least from the natural equality from which the civil society 
took its origin. The majority then proceeds to establish such rules 
and regulations for the conduct of society as in its judgment shall 
add most to the security (and hence enjoyment) of those rights, 
for the sake of which the society was formed. In making such 
rules the opinion of the majority counts as the opinion of the 
whole. This, of course, is a fiction; but it is a believable fiction 
so long as, but only so long as, the minority feels that, whether 
mistakenly or not, the majority is legislating with a view to secur- 
ing the minority's rights as well as its own. If the minority feels 
that its rights are more endangered than secured by the legisla- 
tion of the majority, then it may, if it can, withdraw its allegiance. 
This consciousness of the right of revolution, a right by which 
the minority can endanger the majority, if the majority endangers 
it, is one of the forces which tends to keep the majority "honest"; 
i.e., to assure that it will make a reasonable effort to think of the 
minority's interests along with its own. 

Now among the rules which each society may justly make for 
its better preservation are rules dealing with non-members and 
rules for admitting non-members to membership. And it is clear 
that Negro slaves were not members of the civil society estab- 
lished in 1776 or of the one perfected in 1787. Some few free 
Negroes were members, and the opinion of Taney in the Dred 
Scott case was utterly wrong, in assuming that Negroes could 
not become citizens. They certainly could become citizens if and 
when any state within which they were residing chose to make 
them such. But while their enslavement may have been intrinsi- 
cally unjust, there was nothing intrinsically unjust in denying 
them the status of citizens after their emancipation. Admission 
to the status of citizen is always something for the legislative 
power in civil society to determine, from the point of view of the 
advantages of that civil society. There is a certain anomaly in 
the position of the freed Negro before the Civil War in that he 
was neither a citizen (in most states) nor an alien. But from 
the point of view of the principles of the Declaration his status 
more nearly resembled that of an alien than a citizen. In any 
case, he was certainly a non-member. The principles of the 


Declaration do not require that any one who chooses to reside 
in a land where he is not a member of the polity has a right to a 
share in the government of that polity merely because he is subject 
to its laws. The proposition that all the governed have a right 
to an equal voice in the government applies only to those who 
are members of the civil society. Any other assumption would 
make nonsense of the conception of civil society as an association 
for better securing unalienable rights. If foreigners could vote 
in our elections, without any previous inquiry on our part as to 
their character and opinions, our enemies could overcome us by 
sending over an army not to fight but to vote! Whether rightly 
or wrongly, the overwhelming opinion of white Americans before 
the Civil War was that Negroes were not fit to exercise the 
privileges of citizenship and that to admit them would have been 
subversive of the purpose for which the government was insti- 
tuted. It was Lincoln's opinion, as it was Jefferson's, that the only 
natural right which the Negro possessed which required civil 
recognition, beyond emancipation, was the right to emigrate. 
The right to emigrate was a corollary of the right to liberty. If a 
man is not admitted to the full privileges of a society of which 
he is not a constituent member, or a successor of a constituent 
member, he is denied no natural right. But he must be permitted 
to form a society of his own if he so chooses or go where he thinks 
he can better secure his own rights. He may not justly be de- 
prived both of membership in the polity, to the laws of which 
he is subject, and of the possibility of forming a polity in which 
he will have full membership. 

Professor Hofstadter's comparison of the right to citizenship 
with the right to liberty fails completely as a criticism of Lincoln, 
who understood the logical and moral implications of the Declara- 
tion of Independence as well as, if not better than, any man 
who has attempted to live by that noble testament. However, 
Hofstadter's argument would be true today in a sense in which 
it was not true in 1858. That is, anyone who now attempted to 
justify depriving Negroes of the privileges of citizenship would 
set a precedent which might be used against himself. The reason 
for this is that the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution 
declares that "All persons born or naturalized in the United States, 
and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United 
States and of the state wherein they reside." Since 1868 the Negro 
populations of the United States as a whole have enjoyed the 


status of citizens of the United States and of the state wherein 
they reside. The same amendment, as is, we trust, sufficiently 
well known, also affirms that "No State shall make or enforce 
any law which shall abridge the privileges and immunities of 
citizens of the United States . . , nor deny to any person within 
its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws." The recognition 
of the Negro's claim to the privileges of citizenship, by the most 
solemn legislative process known to the Constitution, the amend- 
ing process, has created a moral claim to political equality which 
the Negro could not claim by the principles of the Declaration of 
Independence alone. That Abraham Lincoln contributed might- 
ily to this enhancement of the worldly fortunes of the Negro in 
America, and to that transformation of public opinion which made 
it possible, we will not attempt to demonstrate. But we do believe 
it is demonstrable. And we also believe that the still unfulfilled 
achievement of equal political rights for Negroes would not even 
be imaginable if there had not first been that recognition of the 
Negro's humanity that the Declaration of Independence demands. 
But Lincoln could not have been successful in securing the recog- 
nition of the rights which the Declaration does demand if he 
had pretended to assert in their behalf rights which it does not 

A wisely consistent statesman, we have maintained, will not 
do or say anything to hinder future statesmen from more per- 
fectly attaining the ends which he recognizes as desirable but not 
presently possible. Let us now inquire whether Lincoln, in deny- 
ing any intention in 1858 to make citizens of Negroes, did or said 
anything that might have served as a precedent for denying 
them this consummation in the future. What Lincoln believed, or 
did not believe, concerning racial equality and inequality has been 
the subject of more loose and uncritical scholarship than almost 
anything concerning his career before 1860. For example, T. Harry 
Williams, in his introduction to the recent Rinehart edition of 
Lincoln's selected writings, says, "Like perhaps ninety-nine per 
cent of the American people in the nineteenth century, when 
little attention was given to cultural anthropology or the study 
of race, he was firmly convinced that the colored race was inferior 
to the white. He did not think that whites and Negroes could 
live together without one race, the superior whites, seeking to 
oppress the other." But Professor Williams does not say in what 


Lincoln held the Negro to be inferior, nor whether Lincoln held 
that the respects in which the Negro was inferior constituted 
reasons for keeping him permanently in the position of a political 
inferior. And in saying that Lincoln held that the whites would 
always oppress the Negroes, does he understand this to be a 
prediction of continued intolerance or an inference from the 
Negro's inferiority? Let us turn to Lincoln's key statements on 
this delicate subject. 

In so doing, we must first remind ourselves what an extremely 
delicate subject it was. We must remember that it was Douglas's 
strategy, in all his long struggle with Lincoln, to fasten the charge 
of racial egalitarianism upon Lincoln. As Lincoln tried to convict 
Douglas of being really pro-slavery, so Douglas tried to convict 
Lincoln of being really an abolitionist and a complete racial 
integrationist. Lincoln could not have survived politically had 
there been any widespread suspicion of truth in Douglas's charge. 
In evaluating the meaning of Lincoln's denials of racial egalitar- 
ianism, we must keep in mind the tremendous pressure he was 
under to deny it and the fact that, as Professor Williams indicates, 
perhaps 99 per cent of his followers were firmly convinced that 
the Negroes were so far inferior as to be incapable of exercising 
the privileges of citizenship in a manner compatible with the 
public safety and welfare. We would say that opinion in Illinois 
in 1858 was probably about as favorable to Negro citizenship as 
opinion in Arkansas today is favorable to public school integration. 
And we would ask the reader of the following selections to ponder 
whether any politician of that state or sister states would today 
be capable of such a restrained indulgence of the opinions of 
those whose suffrages he was seeking. 

We have already produced the classic passage from the Peoria 
speech in which Lincoln said that his own feelings would not 
admit of making the Negroes social and political equals or, "if 
mine would, we well know that the great mass of white people 
would not." After repeating this passage at Ottawa he went on 
to say, among other things: 

I have no purpose to introduce political and social equality 
between the white and black races. There is a physical 
difference between the two, which in my judgment will 
probably forever forbid their living together upon the footing 
of perfect equality, and inasmuch as it becomes a necessity 


that there must be a difference, I, as well as Judge Douglas, 
am in favor of the race to which I belong, having the 
superior position. I have never said anything to the contrary, 
but I hold that notwithstanding all this, there is no reason 
in the world why the negro is not entitled to all the natural 
rights enumerated in the Declaration of Independence, the 
right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. I hold 
that he is as much entitled to these as the white man. I 
agree with Judge Douglas he is not my equal in many re- 
spectscertainly not in color, perhaps not in moral and 
intellectual endowment. But in the right to eat the bread, 
without leave of anybody else, which his own hand earns, 
he is my equal and the equal of Judge Douglas, and the 
equal of every living man. 15 

This passage is repeated, with minor differences in wording, at 
Charleston, where Lincoln had also said, as we have seen above, 
"I am not, nor ever have been," in favor of making voters or 
jurors of Negroes or otherwise permitting them social and political 

What are we to infer from the foregoing concerning Lincoln's 
views? In the first place, we must note that Lincoln, in saying, 
"I am not, nor ever have been," says nothing about the future. 
Lincoln never said, so far as we know, that he never would be in 
favor of such equality. In the Peoria speech he said his own 
feelings were against it, but he immediately introduced, as a 
hypothetical possibility, that his own feelings might not be against 
it. Why? The sentence, taken as a whole, is an equivocation. 
Concerning the equality or inequality of the qualities of the 
Negro, we note that Lincoln says "certainly" only that the Negro 
is not his equal in color. Lincoln knew, of course, that his audience 
would assign great value to this inequality. But what value did 
he assign to it? We do not know. 16 As to moral and intellectual 
endowment, he says "perhaps" the Negro is unequal in these re- 
spects. If we credit Lincoln with the opinion which is implicit in 
his whole life's work, then he believed that moral and intellectual 
differences were the only qualitative differences between men 
of intrinsic importance. On this premise Lincoln never, to our 
knowledge, said that the Negro was certainly inferior in capacity 
to the white man. In saying "perhaps," Lincoln was merely echo- 
ing the opinion of Jefferson, and of all enlightened Americans, 


who recognized that, in the barbaric condition of native Africans 
and in the oppressed condition of American Negroes, there had 
not been sufficient opportunity to form a conclusive judgment as 
to their potentialities. 17 We give it as our opinion that, in the 
actual circumstances, cultural anthropology could not have given 
a more intelligent answer. 

Lincoln was a pessimist on the subject of the possibility of an 
interracial, egalitarian society. The physical difference of color, he 
thought, preserved prejudices which would make political equal- 
ity impossible. But he did not say that the inequality traceable 
to color was rooted in an inequality of intrinsic worth. Nor did 
he ever say, as Professor Williams believes, that the "superior 
whites" would always oppress the inferior Negroes. Lincoln gave 
it as his opinion that one or the other would do the oppressing. 
And, he said, if there must be a superior and an inferior, an 
oppressed and an oppressor, he would naturally prefer the 
advantage being on the side of "the race to which I belong." This 
reasoning has nothing whatever to do with justice. It contem- 
plates the situation in the ancient conundrum in which there are 
two men on a raft capable of supporting only one. It is equally 
just, or unjust, for either to push the other off. What this proves 
is that there are certain situations in which justice is impossible. 
Where justice is impossible, the decision between two equally 
unjust alternatives may justly be decided on the basis of pure 
self-interest. But because there are some situations in which 
justice is impossible does not mean that it is never possible or 
that there is any less obligation to be just when justice is possible. 

In the background of Lincoln's pessimism on the race question, 
as in the foreground of every appeal to natural right, are the 
classic reflections of Jefferson. In the Notes on Virginia Jefferson 
had written, "Among the Romans emancipation required but one 
effort. The slave, when made free, might mix with, without stain- 
ing the blood of his master. But with us a second is necessary, 
unknown to history. When freed, he is to be removed beyond 
the reach of mixture." 18 When Jefferson asked himself, "Why not 
retain and incorporate the blacks into the State," his answer was: 
"Deep-rooted prejudices entertained by the whites; ten thousand 
recollections, by the blacks, of the injuries they have sustained; 
new provocations; the real distinction which nature has made; 
and many other circumstances, will divide us into parties, and 
produce convulsions, which will never end but in the extermina- 


tion of die one or the other race." 19 The premise of this assertion, 
be it noted, is not a doctrine of white supremacy. On the contrary, 
Jefferson must have entertained the possibility that the blacks 
had very considerable political capacity if he believed it possible 
that they might become oppressors in their turn. He supposes 
that Negroes and whites alike are given to prejudice because 
such is the nature of their common humanity and when the roots 
of the prejudice go as deep as in this instance, the obstacles to 
complete equality of condition in the same society are insupera- 
ble. Both Lincoln and Jefferson, we are certain, would have con- 
ceded that such prejudices are theoretically capable of being 
transcended. Nay, more, we are certain that neither of them held 
an opinion on the race question which might justly be called a 
prejudice. "But a nation of philosophers is as little to be expected 
as the philosophical race of kings wished for by Plato/' 20 Both 
Lincoln and Jefferson, being committed to government by the 
consent of the governed, were committed to the proposition that 
unphilosophic opinion must always enter into title actual basis 
of political justice. In the Temperance Address Lincoln had 
foreseen, with a clarity given to few men, the possibility of 
tyranny implicit in the demand that men be governed by reason 
alone. No man who was himself governed by reason would at- 
tempt to enforce such demands. 

Neither Lincoln nor Jefferson believed that genuine friendship 
between the races that is, apart from exceptional individuals- 
was possible. And neither believed that, where friendship is 
impossible, it is possible for men to be fellow citizens in any but a 
partial or incomplete sense of the term. The acceptance of 
imperfection was of the essence of the acceptance of popular 
government and yet in no wise indicated the inferiority of popular 
government to other possible forms of government For Lincoln, 
as for Jefferson, Clay, and others, the only perfect solution of 
the American race question was complete separation by the 
emigration of the Negroes. For Lincoln the possibility of this solu- 
tion was demonstrated in the history of the ancient Hebrews, 
who had gone out of Egypt, and the colonists who had departed 
from the Old World monarchies, to gain their freedom in the New 
World and to establish, eventually, the United States. It has been 
demonstrated in our own day by the state of Israel. In advocating 
emigration and colonization for the Negroes Lincoln was not 
depredating the Negroes; on the contrary, lie paid them a high 


tribute in supposing they had the same capacity for founding 
a free society that white men had. Lincoln was impressed, as few 
of his critics today are, by the vast cost in human genius and 
sacrifice that must go into the erection of free political institutions. 
He did not believe that the Negro race would ever fully enjoy 
the freedom and equality which had been established by the 
efforts of white men until they had established freedom and 
equality in a country of their own. Lincoln knew that the opinion 
of the average white man was unfavorable to the Negro just 
because there was no example of a free indigenous Negro polity 
to which Negroes might point as an example of their political 
capacity. As long as opinions depended on such evidence, and 
as long as such evidence was lacking, so long would "perfect 
equality" between the races be Utopian. 

In the Ottawa debate Lincoln said he did not believe the two 
races could live together upon a footing of "perfect equality," 
but he did not say they could not live together upon a footing 
of much greater equality. His pessimism was, in fact, much more 
moderate than Jefferson's. In the Civil War, Lincoln went far to 
impress the white public with the claims to civil rights which 
Negroes had justly acquired by their sacrifices in saving the 
Union, a Union which had in some measure become theirs by 
virtue of these sacrifices. And when Lincoln began to prepare 
his plan for reconstruction, toward the end of the Civil War, 
political rights for qualified Negroes was included as a matter 
of course. This policy was perfectly consistent with what he had 
said in 1858 and earlier. Lincoln never attempted to propose what 
was more than one step ahead of the great body of political 
public opinion. But he always led the way. 

Chapter XVIII 

The "Natural Limits" of Slavery 

WE have already cited the extraordinary statement by Professor 
Randall that Douglas's program "would inevitably have made 
Kansas free . . /' We have argued that, in so far as Randall relies 
for his judgment on the political effects of the doctrine of "popular 
sovereignty/' taken by itself, he is utterly mistaken. For Douglas 
would have been powerless to resist Buchanan in 1857-58 without 
the Republicans in Congress, and there would have been no 
Republicans there if Douglas's policy had been accepted in 1854; 
and there is no reason to believe that without the continued 
opposition to Douglas by Lincoln in 1858 "popular sovereignty" 
would have resulted in freedom in Kansas thereafter. But Ran- 
dall's thesis, and the whole revisionist case, hinges upon still 
another hypothesis. It is that causes other than purely political 
ones Would in any case have kept slavery out of Kansas and out 
of any other parts of the Union where it was not already estab- 
lished. "By 1858 it was evident that slavery in Kansas had no 
chance," Randall writes. "After that, as Professor W. O. Lynch 
has shown, 'there was no remaining Federal territory where the 
conditions were so favorable to slavery/ The fight against the 
Lecompton proslavery constitution was won not by reason of any 
debate between Lincoln and Douglas, but by the logical workings 
of natural causes and by a specific contest in which, with 'the 
aid of Republicans, he [Douglas] won the Lecompton fight/" 1 

Anyone reading Randall's text would, we think, suppose that 
the article of Professor Lynch from which Randall has quoted, 


and which is to be found in the Dictionary of American History, 
Volume IV, page 309, contains some evidence to support the con- 
tention that "there was no remaining Federal territory where the 
conditions were so favorable to slavery." In fact, however, Lynch's 
article contains nothing whatever to that effect, except the bare 
assertion Randall has quoted. In Lynch's bibliography, however, 
one finds listed the classic essay by Charles W. Ramsdell, "The 
Natural Limits of Slavery Expansion/' published in The Missis- 
sippi Valley Historical Review, October 1929. So far as the present 
writer has been able to discover, this essay is the headwater from 
which has flowed the "natural causes" thesis upon which Randall, 
Lynch, and other revisionists have based their conviction that 
freedom in the territories was inevitable. This essay must be one 
of the most influential works in American historical writing since 
the Civil War. What is remarkable is its acceptance by northern 
historians, because the author is one of the most redoubtable and 
uncompromising apologists of the southern cause. Like most 
southern apologists since the Civil War, he does not think slavery 
was the real issue. The "positive good" theory was only the 
reaction to abolitionism on which Southerners blame everything 
for which no apology can be found but, according to Ramsdell, 
abolitionists or not, "There can be little doubt that the institution 
of chattel slavery had reached its peak by 1860 and that within 
a comparatively short time it would have begun to decline and 
eventually have been abolished by the Southerners themselves." 
Why the South fought so desperately to preserve an institution it 
was about to abolish may be hard to understand. Ramsdell, of 
course, would say they were fighting for the rights of the states 
which, unlike the Union, were worth fighting for. 2 

A man may always be pardoned, and even admired, for making 
a spirited defense of the cause of his forefathers. But to see the 
"natural causes'* thesis pass from an old Confederate like Ramsdell 
to a "Constitutional Unionist" like Randall and then to an 
"Abolitionist" like Hofstadter is as bewildering as it is stimulating. 
The following occurs in a note to Hofstadter's essay on Lincoln. 
"Historians are in general agreement with such contemporaries 
of Lincoln as Clay, Webster, Douglas and Hammond, that the 
natural limits of slavery expansion in the continental United States 
had already been readied." We have italicized the phrase which 
shows the title of RamsdeU's essay passing into Hofstadter's 


language almost as a truism. Strangely neither Hofstadter, in his 
three-page, fine-print bibliography, nor Randall, in his bibliog- 
raphy of over fifty pages appended to the second volume of 
Lincoln the President, lists the Ramsdell "Natural Limits" essay. 
This is the more surprising because both list Ramsdell's far less 
consequential essay blaming Lincoln for the firing on Fort Sumter. 
Yet Randall disagrees with the Sumter piece, which he lists, and 
agrees with the "natural limits" piece, which he does not list. 
And the firing on Sumter, important as it is as an episode, can 
hardly be compared in importance with the question of the 
reality of the slavery-extension issue, which was the avowed 
political cause of secession. Can it be that Randall and Hofstadter 
do not wish to acknowledge their debt to the Southerner, even 
when he helps them damn Lincoln, who was neither secessionist, 
constitutional unionist, nor abolitionist? 

So far as we know, it is Ramsdell, and not Clay, Webster, 
Douglas, or Hammond, whom recent historians have followed. 
As for Clay and Webster, we do not know what evidence 
Hofstadter has since he gives nonethat they believed slavery 
to have reached its "natural limits" in the continental United 
States. During the Senate debates on the Kansas-Nebraska bill 
in the spring of 1854, Chase, Sumner, Seward, and other of its 
opponents proved beyond a peradventure as Lincoln was to do 
in his Peoria speech the following fall that the compromisers 
of 1850 certainly the Whig compromisers had no territories in 
mind but those acquired from Mexico. Webster's celebrated 
seventh of March speech, as we have shown in an earlier chap- 
ter, 8 only referred to former Mexican soil, from which all anti- 
slavery men, and Douglas, believed it was banned by Mexican 
law, until such time as there was a positive enactment sanctioning 
slavery by American authority. So far as we know, neither Clay 
nor Webster ever said, or implied, that slavery would not expand 
anywhere in the continental United States if all legal prohibitions 
were withdrawn. Clay and Webster did, however, speak of 
natural causes keeping slavery out of the Mexican Southwest. In 
this sense they did propound a "natural limits" theory of a sort. 
However, there was a vast difference for statesmen to propound 
such a belief to gain acceptance of a specific legislative measure 
and for scholars to employ it as a general theory for the interpre- 
tation of history. As we shall shortly show, the concept of a natural 


limit to slavery is, as a scientific theory, false and should never 
have commanded the assent of any reflecting person. Certainly 
no one who has read Lincoln's speeches, where it is thoroughly 
refuted, should have entertained it for a moment. As propounded 
by Webster, Clay, and Douglas in 1850, it meant only that it was 
improbable that slavery would go into such a place as New 
Mexico Territory in the foreseeable future. The justification for 
Webster is that he used a plausible but specious argument to 
persuade the North to forgo the Wilmot Proviso, because he 
believed that the Compromise of 1850, taken as a whole, was a 
Union-saving measure, in the interest of the entire country. And 
the compromise would have been impossible if the Proviso de- 
mand had been insisted upon by the North. The idea that God 
and nature would keep slavery out of the newly acquired South- 
west was an argument addressed to the North and designed to 
make palatable a concession which, in any case, was being paid 
for by such southern concessions as the admission of California 
as a free state. It is almost inconceivable that Webster or Clay 
would have accepted the "natural limits" theory to defend the 
repeal of the Missouri Compromise, which was a wholly gratui- 
tous, uncompensated concession to pro-slavery opinion. But even 
if Webster's argument was more plausible than we believe it ever 
was, there is no excuse for historians repeating it, nearly a century 
afterward, when experience has revealed its utter hollo wness. For 
in 1859, as we have already noted, the territorial government 
of New Mexico actually passed a slave code for that vast region. 
The revisionists, we are aware, would reply that, even with the 
slave code, slavery did not go into New Mexico. To this we 
would rejoin that the sectional crisis came to a head barely a 
year after the code was passed and that the election of Lincoln 
persuaded most slaveowners not to venture forth in any direction 
with their property until the secession issue was settled. The 
following is from a letter written by the Secretary of the New 
Mexico Territory to an acquaintance in Washington on August 16, 
1858, during the thick of the Lincoln-Douglas campaign: 

It is generally believed here that the territorial legislature 
will pass some kind of a slave code for the territory at the 
next session. It is true that we have few slaves here, but 
Otero [New Mexico's delegate to Congress] has let it be 


known that if N. M. expects any favors from Wash. [i.e., 
from the Buchanan administration], a slave code would be 
a wise move. The governor and most of the other officials 
are favorable to it ... We have assured the Mexicans that 
it will protect their own system of peonage . . , 4 

So much for the way in which political causes supplemented 
"natural causes" in helping "popular sovereignty" along. But less 
than ten years after Webster had declaimed so about God and 
nature forbidding slavery in New Mexico, we find such sentiments 
as the following, expressed in a letter by an Associate Justice of 
the territory, a native New Englander, to the Attorney General 
of the United States, February 14, 1859: 

This body has passed a law for the protection of slave prop- 
erty in the territory. This was necessary, for the truth is I 
do not see how Americans are going to get on here without 
slavery. It can't be done. The Peons are not worth their salt 
and all other labor is unattainable. Slave labor can be made 
very profitable by cultivating the soil, and I will venture to 
say that a man with a half dozen negroes would make a 
fortune at the present prices of produce . . . and grains. The 
soil in the bottoms is very rich and productive. You must 
not place any credence in the story that slave property could 
not be made available here. 5 

It is our impression that the word "available" in the last sentence 
is employed in the somewhat archaic sense of "useful," or "capa- 
ble of succeeding," as an "available" candidate for office. However, 
to anyone who, like Professor Hofstadter, still takes the Webster 
argument of 1850 seriously, we offer the foregoing as expert 
testimony from someone on the spot to the effect that the soil 
and climate argument, as applied to New Mexico, was nothing 
but what Lincoln called a "lullaby." Another reason why there 
were few slaves in New Mexico is that just before the war slave 
prices were skyrocketing. They were in such demand in the older 
slave lands that it was almost impossible to buy them for the 
newer lands. We should note, moreover, that while the New 
Mexican legislature was passing a slave code it also passed a 
series of measures to strengthen the system of peonage. Ramsdell 
and others have maintained that the cheapness of Mexican labor 
made Negro slavery unlikely in the Southwest. In fact, however, 


the two systems helped each other. Negro slavery helped to 
reinforce peonageor would have if it had remained available 
as an alternative source of labor. The worst effects of peonage, 
which was scarcely better than slavery, would have been impossi- 
ble to ameliorate if slavery had continued to exist nearby. And 
Lincoln's whole point was that, where men were free to introduce 
slavery, any alternative labor system was bound to be depressed 
to a condition approximating that of the slaves. To sum up: the 
"natural limits" and "popular sovereignty" theories had their prime 
test in New Mexico, and what was happening there even as the 
Lincoln-Douglas debates were in progress vindicated Lincoln's 
contentions during the debates. 

RamsdelFs essay is very persuasive in establishing a very 
limited proposition; viz., that by 1860 the traditional southern 
plantation system of cotton culture had extended about as far 
as it was likely to extend within the existing boundaries of the 
United States. He does except some large areas of Texas, which 
the railroads had not yet made accessible to markets and which 
were also unusable until the invention of the barbed-wire fence 
made the fields immune to the depredations of cattle, because 
the lands in question were far from fencing timber. But RamsdelTs 
essay proves nothing whatever as to the possibility of slavery 
being extended by the employment of slaves in other occupations. 
Nor does it prove that any existing limitations were permanent 
limitations. It is precisely this last point at which Lincoln took 
aim when he employed one of his most oft-repeated and prescient 
arguments in the joint debates. We take the text from the last 
joint debate at Alton, although he said substantially the same 
thing at Springfield, July 17, 1858, and at Jonesboro and Quincy 
in the joint meetings, as well as in innumerable speeches on the 

Brooks of South Carolina once declared that when this 
Constitution was framed, its framers did not look to the 
institution existing until this day. When he said this, I think 
he stated a fact that is fully borne out by the history of the 
times. But he also said they were better and wiser men than 
the men of these days; yet the men of these days had ex- 
perience which they had not, and by the invention of the 


cotton gin it became a necessity in this country that slavery 
should be perpetual. I now say that . . . Judge Douglas has 
been the most prominent instrument in changing the position 
of slavery . . . and putting it upon Brook's cotton-gin ba- 
sis ... Q 

"Brooks's cotton-gin basis'* means a basis in which any possibility 
to make profit from the Negro is not to be prevented by any 
considerations of the Negro's rights. But it means still more. It 
means that the expectation of the Fathers, an expectation based 
on the economic prospects of slavery before the invention of the 
cotton gin, was utterly confounded by the invention of the cotton 
gin. If Professor Ramsdell had written an essay on the "natural" 
limits of slavery in 1790, he would have seen those limits utterly 
destroyed before the end of 1791. If, then, a human invention 
can completely overturn limits set by "nature," nature is a most 
fickle thing to rely upon. In short, the idea of a "natural" limit 
to a human institution is, as we have maintained, an absurdity. 
One invention had completely altered the prospects of freedom 
of millions of human beings. The mid-nineteenth century was very 
self-conscious of the rapid technological changes that were revo- 
lutionizing the conditions of human life. Lincoln himself lectured 
on science and inventions after the campaign against Douglas 
and had patented an invention of his own. "Brooks's cotton-gin 
basis" therefore implied the following further questions: shall we 
permit the institution of human slavery to be revolutionized by 
any future technological development? Shall human rights be the 
slave of technology, or shall technology be the slave of human 
rights? Without a moral decision against slavery no guarantee for 
the future was possible. Certainly there is no scrap of evidence 
in Ramsdelfs essay that there was in 1860 any more of a guarantee 
against the expansion of slavery than that which existed in 1790. 

That slavery was wedded, by and large, to cotton in the 
antebellum South may be true. But this is to be explained by 
the extraordinary profitability of cotton culture and proves nothing 
as to the possibility of the exploitation of slave labor in other 
fields of human production. That Negro slavery could be main- 
tained only in connection with the simpler forms of unskilled 
field labor is a myth contradicted even by those who spread it. 
Ramsdell himself refers to "negro mechanics . . . hired at high 


wages. He does not say these were slaves, but it is notorious 
that many wereas well as that their owners kept most of their 
wages. Kenneth Stampp, in his admirable recent survey The 
Peculiar Institution, 7 says that although, for obvious reasons, the 
bulk of the slaves were employed in cotton and similar agricul- 
tural pursuits, "In 1860, probably a half million bondsmen lived 
in southern cities and towns, or were engaged in work not directly 
or indirectly connected with agriculture," and that "in spite of 
the protests of free laborers," they "worked in virtually every 
skilled and unskilled occupation." 8 And as revealing as words 
can be of the truth of Lincoln's position is the following: "Some 
Southerners were enthusiastic crusaders for the development of 
factories which would employ slaves. They were convinced that 
bondsmen could be trained in all necessary skills [for which 
conviction there was abundant empirical evidence] and would 
provide a cheaper and more manageable form of labor than free 
whites." 9 Professor Stampp also gives an example of a famous 
iron company in Richmond, Virginia, which introduced slaves into 
its labor force in the 1840'$, with the result that the free laborers 
eventually struck in protest. Then the manager, like countless 
managers since, "vowed he would show his workers that they 
could not dictate his labor policies: he refused to re-employ any 
of the strikers." 10 Thereafter the company employed only slaves. 
When Lincoln made his New England tour in March 1860, after 
the Cooper Union speech, he came to New Haven, Connecticut, 
in the midst of a shoe strike. The strike was, in part, occasioned 
by the loss of southern business by reason of an attempt to apply 
pressure, via the boycott, upon Republican businesses and busi- 
nessmen. Yet Lincoln grasped this nettle firmly when he said: 

I am glad to see that system of labor prevails in New Eng- 
land under which laborers can strike when they want to, 
where they are not obliged to work under all circumstances, 
and are not tied down and obliged to labor whether you 
pay them or not! I like the system which lets a man quit 
when he wants to, and wish it might prevail everywhere. 
One of the reasons I am opposed to Slavery is just here. 11 

Southern apologists who speak of a "natural limit" to slavery are 
really thinking not of economic "nature" but of the nature of the 
Negro. What they seem to assume, perhaps half consciously, is 
that the Negro is a kind of domestic animal, limited in usefulness 


like a horse or a mule. Lincoln's fundamental objection to the 
whole "soil and climate" thesis stemmed from his simple assump- 
tion that the Negro was a man and that as such he was capable 
of being exploited in any way that human labor might be ex- 
ploited. Any break in the legal barriers confining slavery was a 
threat to free labor, because slave labor could be used to degrade 
free labor wherever there was a legal possibility of their being 
used side by side. Slavery, moreover, was a protean institution, 
as Professor Stampp's recent book convincingly shows. There were 
many forms that the relationship of master and servant could 
and did take, and there is no reason to suppose that, should 
slavery in the mines, foundries, factories, and fields of the free 
states have proved advantageous to powerful groups therein, new 
systems of discipline might not have been invented to make the 
exploitation of slave labor highly profitable. The totalitarian 
regimes of the twentieth century provide us with ample evidence 
of the variety of ways that this might have been done. Even 
if it were true that tie productivity of a system based on free 
labor is greater than one based on slave labor, it does not follow 
that it is more profitable to the men who run it. A large portion 
of a smaller sum may still be more than a small portion of a 
larger one. All we know of the fierce struggles, the long uphill 
climb, of free labor in the grip of the industrial revolution that 
followed the Civil War suggests that it never could have suc- 
ceeded, as it has, if in addition to all other handicaps the incubus 
of slavery could have been placed in the scales against it. If the 
great corporations, the "robber barons" who came to dominate 
the state legislatures in the postbellum period, had wanted to 
import slaves as strikebreakers, then it would not have required 
even another Dred Scott decision to spread slavery to the free 
states. It is simply unhistorical to say that such a thing couldn't 
have happened because it didn't happen. It didn't happen because 
Lincoln was resolved that it shouldn't happen. And nothing but 
his implacable resolve made it impossible. 

The thesis that slavery would not have gone into the territories, 
whether it was prohibited by law or not, is the fundamental thesis 
of revisionism in dealing with the political causes of the Civil 
War. But this thesis is itself a subordinate manifestation of an 
apology for the South which has received a classic formulation 
in the work of Ramsdell. The main thesis of this apology, which 


we have already given in Ramsdell's words, is that slavery as an 
economic institution had reached its peak in 1860 and was about 
to decline. Gradual emancipation was "just around the corner/* 
if only the Republicans had not placed the South on the defensive. 
This contention has recently received its most detailed and 
circumstantial refutation in a monograph written under the 
auspices of the National Bureau of Economic Research by two 
Harvard economists, Professors Alfred H. Conrad and John Meyer. 
"The Economics of Slavery in the Ante-Bellum South," published 
in The Journal of Political Economy, April 1958, is the most en- 
lightening piece of original research we have encountered on the 
slavery question. 

According to the authors, this study is the first attempt to 
measure the profitability of slavery according to the economic, 
as opposed to the accounting, concept of profitability. The debate 
over the profitability of slavery, they note, has been conducted 
in terms of a variety of accounting methods, usually shaped to 
prove the debaters' contentions and seldom comparable one with 
another. Conrad and Meyer have attempted to measure the 
profitability of southern slave operations in terms of modern 
capital theory. And what they have concluded is that the rate of 
return on male slave capital employed in the field ranged between 
5 and 7 per cent in the majority of antebellum cotton plantation 
operations, while the rate on female slave capital, from both field 
work and procreation, averaged 8 per cent. These returns, they 
say, compare favorably with contemporary returns of 6 to 7 per 
cent on genuinely alternative investment opportunities. 

Slavery, they maintain, was profitable to the whole South, the 
continuing demand for labor in the cotton belt ensuring returns 
to the breeding operations on the less productive land in the 
seaboard and border states. The breeding returns were necessary, 
however, to make the plantation operations on the poorer lands 
as profitable as alternative contemporary economic activities. The 
failure of southern agriculture on these poorer lands in the post- 
bellum period is probably attributable, they say, mainly to the 
loss of capital gains from slave breeding and not to the relative 
inefficiency of the tenant system that replaced plantations or the 
soil damage resulting from the war. This last point, we observe, is 
of great importance. It is a reply to those who charge the freed 
Negroes with incapacity as agriculturists when separated from 
their old overseers. What the freed Negroes were unable to do 


to compete with the old plantation system was to sell themselves 
to balance their budget! Shades of Swift's "Modest Proposal!" 
The Conrad and Meyer work is striking for its data on the 
importance of slave breeding to the entire slave economy. As 
they mention, this was something that Southerners, then and 
since, have gone to great lengths to deny and to conceal. We may 
recall 12 that Douglas in 1849 had expected all the border states, 
from Missouri to Delaware, to adopt schemes for gradual emanci- 
pation. If soil and climate in these states had been the sole 
determining factor, his expectation might have been correct. But 
the Conrad and Meyer work shows that the employment of slaves 
in these states, plus the sale of the surplus Negroes raised there, 
maintained the profitability of slavery there. The South, they note, 
had developed a price structure for slaves and efficient market 
mechanisms for transferring slaves. Because of this no argument 
based on the soil and climate in a region which did not take 
into account the profits from breeding can be accounted ade- 
quate. Thus, they further conclude that continued expansion of 
slave territory was both possible and, to some extent, necessary. 
The maintenance of profits depended, they say, upon either 
intensive or extensive expansion. Intensive expansion, we would 
add, could only mean greater use of more skilled slaves, and this 
in itself would have suggested the feasibility of, and have 
encouraged the use of slaves in, the lands of farming supposedly 
reserved for the yeoman farmers of the West. As to the alleged 
inefficiency of slave labor in all but certain kinds of farming, Con- 
rad and Meyer are, like Stampp, entirely unimpressed. They note 
that slaves were employed in cotton factories throughout the 
South, in coal mines, in lumbering, and in iron works (as al- 
ready noted), and they say that southern railroads were largely 
built by slaves. In short, there is almost nothing to suggest that 
slaves, like free Negroes since the Civil War, might not have 
gone almost anywhere the law and the whites allowed, doing 
any work white men did, if given the chance. 

In concluding this portion of our argument, we would merely 
note that the Conrad and Meyer paper is not only a refutation 
of the Ramsdell "natural limits" theory, but it is a vindication 
of another argument that Lincoln used, with ever greater empha- 
sis, as the Civil War approached. In commenting on the difficulties 
of finding support for a plan of gradual emancipation and coloni- 


zation, he had observed at the end of his Dred Scott speech, 
"The plainest print cannot be read through a gold eagle; and it 
will be ever hard to find many men who will send a slave to 
Liberia, and pay his passage, while they can send him to a new 
country, Kansas for instance, and sell him for fifteen hundred 
dollars, and the rise." 13 And in the New Haven speech, from 
which we have quoted above, Lincoln also spoke as follows: 

The owners of these slaves consider them property. The 
effect upon the minds of the owners is that of property, and 
nothing else it induces them to insist upon all that will 
favorably affect its value as property, to demand laws and 
institutions and a public policy that shall increase and secure 
its value, and make it durable, lasting and universal . . . The 
slaveholder does not like to be considered a mean fellow . . . 
and hence he has to struggle within himself and sets about 
arguing himself into the belief that Slavery is right. The 
property influences his mind. The dissenting minister, who 
argued some theological point with one of the established 
church, was always met with the reply, "I can't see it so." He 
opened the Bible, and pointed him to a passage, but the 
orthodox minister replied, "I can't see it so." Then he showed 
him a single word "Can you see that?" "Yes, I see it," was 
the reply. The dissenter laid a guinea over the word and 
asked, "Do you see it now?" So here, whether the owners 
of this species of property do really see it as it is, it is not 
for me to say, but if they do, they see it as it is through 
2,000,000,000 of dollars, and that is a pretty thick coating. 14 

The necessity for the expansion of slavery, and the reality of the 
need for new lands, if the value of that multi-billion dollar 
investment was to be safeguarded, was implicitly confessed by 
Douglas himself in his last rejoinder in the joint debates at Alton. 
Lincoln's idea, said Douglas, 

is that he will prohibit slavery in all the territories, and 
thus force them all to become free states, surrounding the 
slave states with a cordon of free states, and hemming them 
in, keeping the slaves confined to their present limits whilst 
they go on multiplying until the soil on which they live will 
no longer feed them, and he will thus be able to put slavery 
in a course of ultimate extinction by starvation. 15 


Of course, Douglas did not entertain the thought that the schemes 
of emancipation proposed by Jefferson might be revived again, 
even by Southerners, once the confinement of slavery lowered 
the rate of return upon slaves. Certainly schemes of compensated 
emancipation would stand a chance if the compensation was for 
an investment of dwindling value. In this sense Douglas has 
accurately stated Lincoln's purpose. But it is difficult to compre- 
hend how any one could have said, as Professor Randall has, 
that in 1858 "big and fundamental things about slavery and the 
Negro were not on the agenda . . ." 

Chapter XIX 

Did the Republicans Abandon Lincoln's 
Principles after the Election of 1860? 

OF ALL the distortions concerning the significance of the Lincoln- 
Douglas debates circulated by revisionists, none is more damning 
to the reputation of the Republican party led by Lincoln than 
the charge that the main plank in the campaigns of 1858 and 
1860 was abandoned after Lincoln's election. A concise statement 
of this charge may be found in Hofstadter's essay on Lincoln: 
"But the supreme irony [of the Lincoln-Douglas debates] can 
be found in the fact that early in 1861 the Republicans in Con- 
gress gave their votes to measures organizing the territories of 
Colorado, Nevada, and Dakota without prohibiting slavery. After 
beating Douglas in 1860, they organized the territories along the 
pattern of his policy, not Lincoln's." 1 Hofstadter has clearly taken 
this theme from Randall, but it is so important for an appreciation 
both of history and of historians that we trouble the reader with 
the parallel passage in Randall's work: 

. . . any serious student of the subject should turn to the 
proceedings in Congress early in 1861. If Lincoln had been 
elected senator, and if in that period he had voted as did 
the great majority of Republicans in Congress on bills organ- 
izing the territories of Colorado, Nevada, and Dakota, he 
would actually have been taking the Douglas position, for 
these territories were organized by Republican votes without 
prohibition of slavery . . . This seems to suggest that . . . 
in a broader analysis, the "issue" of abolition in the territories 


was a talking point ... a campaign appeal rather than a 
guide for legislation. 2 

We pause only to note that there was no issue of "abolition" in 
the territories. Randall has again fallen into Douglas's vernacular. 
Lincoln always pointed out that there was no need to abolish 
slavery in the territories; his aim was to keep it out. The foregoing 
passage is from Randall's chapter on the debates, but in his chap- 
ter on the secession crisis of the winter of 1860-61 he returns 
to the charge thus: 

It has been noted above how Douglas was able in 1861 
to taunt the Republicans with abandonment of those princi- 
ples on which the Lincoln-Douglas debates had been waged 
in 1858. That point deserves further notice here. When the 
aforementioned acts organizing Colorado, Nevada, and Da- 
kota were passed (February-March 1861), the prohibition 
or permission of slavery was not mentioned in these statutes, 
which left the question of slavery in the territories exactly 
where it was in Douglas's Kansas-Nebraska act of 1854, so 
far as congressional legislation was concerned . . . After the 
proceedings had been completed regarding the three ter- 
ritorial bills . . . Douglas could not refrain from making his 
comment. "This very session," he said, "the Republican party, 
in both Houses of Congress . . . have backed down from 
their platform and abandoned the doctrine of congressional 
prohibition . . . They have abandoned the doctrine of the 
President elect . . ." 3 

The foregoing passages, from both Hofstadter and Randall, are 
as remarkable for what they omit as for what they say. Let us 
consider the situation during this last, lame-duck session of the 
Thirty-sixth Congress, and then we will also take note of certain 
subsequent events. 

In the first place, the election of Lincoln in the fall of 1860 
had been followed by the secession of South Carolina on Decem- 
ber 20, 1861, and South Carolina was soon followed by Georgia, 
Florida, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, and Texas, all of which 
"left" the Union before the inauguration of Lincoln. It was in the 
midst of the desperate efforts to preserve the Union that the three 
territorial bills mentioned were passed. The most notable of these 
efforts was the Crittenden Compromise. The provisions of this 


last-ditch attempt to stem the tide of secession, and apparently 
the only one that southern leaders would support, may be sum- 
marized in the words of Professor Randall in his The Civil War 
and Reconstruction. 

Let slavery be prohibited in national territory north of the 
line 36 degrees 30 minutes, but let it be established and 
maintained by Federal protection south of that line; let future 
states, north or south of the line, come into the Union with 
or without slavery as they wish; restrain Congress from 
abolishing slavery in places within national jurisdiction which 
may be surrounded by slave states . . . 4 

We forbear at this point because the main points have been given. 
The key to the Crittenden Compromise, of course, is the division 
of the nation's territory along the parallel of the Missouri Com- 
promise line. And it was at this point at which most Republicans 
in Congress stuck. The purpose of the Republican party was, as 
we have seen, to restore the Missouri Compromise prohibition. 
But it meant to do this because it meant, as a matter of principle, 
to forbid slavery anywhere that the authority of Congress ex- 
tended. Lincoln never would have tampered with the Compro- 
mise of 1850 if the slave power had not tampered with the 
Compromise of 1820. But now that all the territories had been 
opened to slavery, by the Kansas-Nebraska Act and the Dred 
Scott decision, he meant to close them all to slavery the moment 
the political means for doing so were available. While the meas- 
ures in the Crittenden Compromise were being discussed, Lincoln 
passed the word of the incoming administration to its congres- 
sional followers. We quote from a letter addressed to William 
Kellogg from Springfield, December 11, 1860: 

Entertain no proposition for a compromise in regard to the 
extension of slavery. The instant you do, they have us under 
again; all our labor is lost, and sooner or later must be done 
over. Douglas is sure to be again trying to bring in his "Pop. 
Sov." Have none of it. The tug has to come & better now 
than later. 5 

And again, to another Republican, December 18, 1860: 

I am sorry any republican inclines to dally with Pop. Sov. 
of any sort. It acknowledges that slavery has equal rights with 


liberty, and surrenders all we have contended for. Once 
fastened on us as a settled policy, filibustering for all South 
of us, and making slave states of it, follows in spite of us, 
with an early Supreme Court decision, holding our free-state 
constitutions to be unconstitutional. 6 

With secession in full cry, and with the imbecile Buchanan 
wringing his hands and saying secession was unconstitutional but 
the Constitution forbade him to do anything about it, the Republi- 
cans in Congress were under enormous pressure to make some 
concessions to keep the country together, at least until a President 
of their choice took office. It is indicative of that pressure that 
Kellogg, to whom the first letter above was addressed, in spite 
of Lincoln's advice, introduced a bill to amend the Constitution 
so that slaves could be taken into any territory south of the 
Missouri line latitude. But the whole weight of the President-elect 
was thrown against any compromise that would admit the right 
of slavery to go into a single foot of the national domain. Upon 
the rock of Lincoln's fidelity to the principle of his campaign 
against Douglas every compromise foundered in that fateful 
winter. Whether Lincoln was doctrinaire in this insistence may 
be debated, but that he stuck to his principle can in no wise be 

When the bills organizing Colorado, Nevada, and Dakota were 
passed, Buchanan was still in the White House. And since he was 
thoroughly committed to the Dred Scott decision, any bill con- 
taining a prohibition of slavery in the territories would certainly 
have been vetoed. But the Republicans did not, in any case, 
have a majority in both houses of the second session of the Thirty- 
sixth Congress. They had a slight majority in the House, but in 
the Senate there were twenty-six Republicans, thirty-six Demo- 
crats, two Americans, and two vacancies. 7 It is true that after 
the congressional delegations from the seceding states had with- 
drawn the Republicans might have pressed for the slavery pro- 
hibitions in the territorial bills. But the secession issue was not 
finally settled, and the attitude of the border states still hung in 
the balance. It would have been madness to have pressed a 
temporary voting advantage when the attitude of the border 
states, upon which all might yet depend, still was unsettled. The 
fact that they stood firm against any commitment to abandon 
their intention to ban slavery in the territories is surely as much 


an exhibition of principle as practical wisdom could have re- 

The denouement of this story, which is omitted altogether by 
Hofstadter, and which is not omitted by Randall, but told with- 
out any suggestion of its relevance to the Lincoln-Douglas debates, 
came the following year. We give it in Randall's words from the 
second volume of Lincoln the President:* 

Two months after having provided emancipation in the 
District, Congress abolished slavery in the territories of the 
United States then existing or thereafter to be formed or ac- 
quired [Act of June 12, 1862], In this instance, as in the 
District case, Congress passed and Lincoln signed a bill 
which, by ruling law according to Supreme Court interpreta- 
tion, was unconstitutional. This fact, as well as the legal 
extinction of that explosive territorial situation which had pro- 
duced such prodigious prewar agitation, was allowed to pass 
over with little comment. 

This grudging record of the "legal extinction" of any possibility of 
slavery in United States territories may also, with charity, be 
allowed to pass with little comment. What should not be passed 
over, however, is the fact that in June 1862, six months after the 
meeting of the first regular session of the first Congress sitting 
during the presidency of Abraham Lincoln, slavery in the terri- 
tories of the United States "then existing or thereafter to be 
formed or acquired" was prohibited. If this constituted an aban- 
donment of the principles of the campaign of 1858, if this was 
not a consummation of everything Lincoln had fought for that 
fateful summer, then words have no meaning. 

Chapter XX 
The End of Manifest Destiny 

HAVING just noted Lincoln's iron refusal, in the midst of the 
secession crisis of the winter of 1860-61, to concede any right to 
slavery south of 36'3o" latitude, we can understand why he would 
never have viewed with approval any of the devices by which 
Douglas attempted in the years 1848, 1849, or ^5 * secure 
any division of the nation's territory by extending the Missouri 
line. For Lincoln was perfectly convinced that any such division, 
however superficially unfavorable it might appear to be to the 
interests of slavery, involved a wrongful concession of principle. 
It would have been wrongful in itself, and it would have been 
utterly unreliable. Lincoln knew that the vast acquisitions of the 
Mexican War were only a foretaste of what Douglas himself be- 
lieved to be in store if he ever gained control of the nation's 
foreign policy. Only a national commitment to confine slavery, 
Lincoln believed, would put an end to the drive for foreign con- 
quest and domination. Many historians have doubted that there 
was any considerable support in the South for filibustering. And, 
of course, there is widespread disbelief that Douglas was inter- 
ested in extending slavery. What they have failed to take into 
account, however, was the dynamism in the coincidence of the 
ambitions of Douglas and the slave power. It was this coincidence 
that repealed the Missouri Compromise. For, say what one will 
as to the precipitating force of the Appeal of the Independent 
Democrats, Douglas did strike a bargain with the Southerners, 
and there was nothing in his policy or principles which inhibited 
him from indulging any requirement of slavery. That Douglas 


would have consented to the expansion of slavery as a means to 
other ends we can hardly doubt. No end was more potently de- 
sired by Douglas than the destruction of British power in the 
Western Hemisphere. To accomplish this Douglas would always 
have permitted the Devil to name his price. And the Devil was 

The fourth question Lincoln put to Douglas at Freeport has 
also been overshadowed by the famous second question. It, too, 
has a significance that can hardly be exaggerated. Lincoln asked: 
"Are you in favor of acquiring additional territory, in disregard 
of how such acquisition may affect the nation on the slavery ques- 
tion?" Here is an extract from Douglas's reply: 

. . . this is a young and growing nation. It swarms as often 
as a hive of bees, and . . . there must be hives in which they 
can gather and make their honey. In less than fifteen years, 
if the same progress that has distinguished this country for 
the last fifteen years continues, every foot of vacant land be- 
tween this and the Pacific Ocean, owned by the United 
States, will be occupied. Will you not continue to increase 
at the end of fifteen years as well as now? I tell you, increase, 
and multiply, and expand, is the law of this nation's existence. 
You cannot limit this great republic by mere boundary lines, 
saying, "thus far shalt thou go, and no further." Any one of 
you gentlemen might as well say to a son twelve years old 
that he is big enough, and must not grow any larger, and in 
order to prevent his growth put a hoop around him to keep 
him to his present size. What would be the result? Either the 
hoop must burst ... or the child must die. So it would be 
with this great nation. With our natural increase . . . with 
the tide of emigration that is fleeing despotism in the old 
world to seek a refuge in our own, there is a constant torrent 
pouring into this country that requires more land, more terri- 
tory upon which to settle, and just as fast as our interests 
and our destiny require additional territory in the north, in 
the south, or in the islands of the ocean, I am for it, and 
when we acquire it will leave the people, according to the 
Nebraska Bill, free to do as they please on the subject of 
slavery and every other question. 1 

Let us note that, according to this doctrine, the land area of the 
Western Hemisphere became usable only by being incorporated 


into the United States! Neither Mexico nor Canada, by Douglas's 
calculations, could provide population outlets except by being first 
sacrificed to the Moloch of Manifest Destiny. But as Douglas 
could not bear to contemplate any partnership of British and 
American power, so Lincoln always tacitly assumed it to be a 
sound basis for American freedom. In 1845 Lincoln had written 
that he could never see much good to come of Texas annexation 
"inasmuch as they were already a free republican people on our 
own model." This was Clay's attitude, and it cost Clay the 
presidency, because he underestimated the popular fear that 
Texas might form an alliance with Britain. Still, Lincoln could 
see no reason in 1858 why every expansion of freedom would 
have to take place by an expansion of the boundaries of the 
United States. How Lincoln scorned Douglas's expansionism we 
may gather from the following rebuttal to Douglas's answer to his 
fourth Freeport question. It was delivered at Galesburg: 

If Judge Douglas's policy upon this question succeeds, and 
gets fairly settled down, until all opposition is crushed out., 
the next thing will be a grab for the territory of poor Mexico, 
and invasion of the rich lands of South America, then the 
adjoining islands will follow, each one of which promises 
additional slave fields. And this question is to be left to the 
people of those countries for settlement When we shall get 
Mexico, I don't know whether the Judge will be in favor of 
the Mexican people that we get with it settling this question 
for themselves and all others; because we know the Judge 
has a great horror for mongrels, and I understand that the 
people of Mexico are most decidedly a race of mongrels. 1 
understand that there is not more than one person there out 
of eight who is pure white, and I suppose from the Judge's 
previous declaration that when we get Mexico or any con- 
siderable portion of it, that he will be in favor of these 
mongrels settling this question, which would bring him some- 
what into collision with his horror of an inferior race. 2 

The ugly potentialities of a policy of lebensraum combined with 
facial supremacy should hardly need explanatory comment today. 
The accents of sarcasm in the foregoing extract can scarcely es- 
cape notice. Of the ''mongrels'* to the south Douglas had spoken 
thus at Springfield, July 17, 1858: 


We are witnessing the result of giving civil and political 
rights to inferior races in Mexico, Central America, in South 
America, and in the West India Islands. Those young men 
who went from here to Mexico to fight the battles of their 
country in the Mexican war, can tell you the fruits of negro 
equality with the white man. They will tell you that the result 
of that equality is social amalgamation, demoralization and 
degradation, below the capacity for self-government. 3 

Douglas's white supremacy, American empire, would have been 
a very different polity from anything envisaged in the pristine 
purity of the republican ideal of the Founding Fathers. There 
would have been precious little "popular sovereignty" for the na- 
tives for whom Douglas had such contempt. And there might be 
many American states today in which, as in the case of the French 
in Algeria, a privileged minority would be engulfed in the swirl- 
ing tides of hatred of an unprivileged majority of a different 
complexion. The problem of racial adjustment in America today 
is of an order of magnitude that we could hardly exaggerate. And 
this problem, as every informed person knows, although drama- 
tized by the struggle of the Negro, is not limited to the Negro. 
Indians, Mexicans, Orientals have all had a desperate struggle, 
varying in times, places, and intensity, to achieve the dignity 
which our fundamental law and principles hold out to all. Aspira- 
tion must, as Lincoln implied in his "standard maxim" doctrine, 
always transcend fulfillment. Yet it is essential that the possibility 
of fulfillment does not fall so far short of the aspiration as to make 
it not a source of hope but a mockery. Douglas's formula for solv- 
ing the slavery question, in which the nation was already hope- 
lessly entangled, would have made that question infinitely more 
complicated. It is almost inconceivable that democratic processes 
could have survived such complications. And we can only shudder 
to think what the twentieth century would be like if the United 
States had entered it as first and foremost of totalitarian powers. 

The only moral justification of Douglas's policy as of revisionist 
historiographyis a tacit belief in the idea of progress, an idea 
that economic forces were "inevitably" working for freedom, both 
on the plains of Kansas and elsewhere. Only such a belief could 


justify the principle that all harsh moral alternatives were to be 
avoided, that one could safely "agree to disagree/' The silent 
forces of history were working for freedom, if only the politicians 
would give them time. Lincoln's whole policy, on the contrary, 
was a denial that things would take care of themselves, that prog- 
ress would result from anything but man's foresight, judgment, 
and courage. The impulse of the Revolution had been a mighty 
one, Lincoln believed, and great things had been achieved be- 
cause of it. But the spirit of '76 and the spirit of Nebraska were 
utter incompatibilities. The Nebraska bill could never even have 
been considered if there had not been an enormous change in 
public opinion, a change for the worse that augured still further 
changes for the worse, changes which portended the utter extinc- 
tion of a weary mankind's hope that there might at last be a 
demonstration of man's capability to govern himself. To avert 
these changes no reliance could be placed on anything so absurd 
as "soil and climate." The only reliance, the only rock upon which 
man's political salvation might be built, was man's moral sense, the 
determination of some men to be free, and the awareness that no 
man can rightfully achieve freedom for himself or, in the presence 
of a just God, long retain his freedom if he would deny to any 
other man, of whatever race or nation, the right to equal freedom. 


Chapter I 

1. Lincoln the President (New York: Dodd, Mead & Company, 
1945), I, p. 127. 

2. History of the United States from the Compromise of 1850, II, 
PP- 33<>, 332, 338. 

3. Abraham Lincoln, Pocket Book Edition, p. 161. 

4. See the introductory essay on Carl Becker by George H. Sabine, 
prefaced to Becker's Freedom and Responsibility in the American 
Way of Life (New York: Vintage Books, 1955). Sabine explains 
that Becker was a "relativist" according to whom history must 
be "continually rewritten," not because of the discovery of new 
facts, but because the historian is necessarily dominated by the 
"preconceptions" and "value judgments" of the age in which he 
lives, and it is these preconceptions which determine the meaning 
he finds in the facts. Becker would have derided Randall's idea 
of restoring "reality," as a masquerade of the historian's prejudices 
in the guise of "detachment." Randall, we presume, might have 
questioned Becker's cogency when the latter affirmed, "Everything 
is unstable . . . except the idea of instability." 

5. Op. cit., Chapter V, "Lincoln and Douglas." 

6. Quoted by Rhodes, op. cit., II, p. 329. 

7. Randall maintains (op. cit., pp. 126, 129-31) that popular sover- 
eignty actually did keep slavery out of Kansas and that, since 
the Republicans in 1861 actually organized the territories of 
Dakota, Nevada, and Colorado without congressional prohibitions 
of slavery, the Douglas of the debates was thoroughly vindicated. 
But, as we shall argue at length later, this assertion involves a 
number of hypotheses and is no mere statement of fact; e.g., did 
the "principle of popular sovereignty" keep slavery from these 
places, or did free-soil opinion and determination, which rejected 
that principle when it rejected Douglas's leadership, keep it out? 

8. Randall, op. cit., p. 158. 

9. On the conflict between the Illinois and eastern Republicans, see 
Don E. Fehrenbacher, "The Nomination of Abraham Lincoln in 
1858," in the Abraham Lincoln Quarterly, March 1950. 

10. The expression "needless war" is taken from Ceorge Fort Milton's 

NOTES 411 

Eve of Conflict: Stephen A. Douglas and the Needless War. (New 
York: Houghton Mifflin, 1934.) That it expresses the key theme of 
revisionist historiography is ably set forth by Thomas J. Pressly, 
Americans Interpret Their Civil War (Princeton University, 1954), 
Chapter Seven, "Repressible Conflict/' pp. 257 ff. The other expres- 
sions I have chosen (they could be endlessly multiplied) are Ran- 
dall's. The beginnings of a reaction to revisionism, particularly in 
the reviews, are also documented in Pressly's book. Of particular 
distinction is Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr/s "The Causes of the Civil 
War: A Note on Historical Sentimentalism," Partisan Review, 
October 1949. This short but remarkable essay certainly anticipates 
in principle some of the major elements in the critique of revisionism 
in the present study. 

Chapter II 

1. Randall, op. cit, I, p. 76. We omit annotating citations from 
speeches of Lincobi and Douglas in this chapter, which presents 
a concise synoptic impression of the two positions confronting each 

2. Ibid., p. 86. 

3. Ibid., p. 122. 

4. Ibid., p. 127. 

5. Cf. Brooks Adams's introduction to Henry Adams, The Degradation 
of the Democratic Dogma, (New York: Peter Smith, 1949), pp. 

Chapter 111 

1. Nevin's denunciation of Douglas is chiefly in the second volume 
of Ordeal of the Union, published in 1947 by Scribner. The sequel, 
the third and fourth volumes of Ordeal of the Union, published 
in 1950 under the subtitle Emergence of Lincoln, praises Douglas 
as highly as he had earlier been denounced. We shall have occasion 
below to comment on Nevin's differing criteria of statesmanship. 

2. Op. cit., II, p. 108. 

3- The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, (hereafter cited as 
Collected Works) Roy P. Easier, editor (Rutgers University, 1953)* 
I, pp. 178, 179. Unless otherwise noted, all italics in quotations from 
Lincoln are Lincoln's own. 

4- Winston S. Churchill, Thoughts and Adventures (London, 1932), 
P- 39. 

412 NOTES 

5. Milton, op. cit, p. 150. 

6. Congressional Globe, 3Oth Congress, ist Session, Appendix, 

7. Ibid., 3ist Cong., ist Session, Appendix, p. 365. 

8. Cf. note 6 above. 

9. The importance of the Irish to Douglas is indicated in Lincoln's 
passing reference in 1852 to "those adopted citizens, whose votes 
have given Judge Douglas all his consequence . . ." Collected 
Works, II, p. 143. Cf. also Mr. Dooley on "The Negro Problem," 
in Mr. Dooley' s Philosophy (New York: R. H. Russell, 1900), 
p. 218. "I was fr strikin' off the shackles iv th' slaves, me la-ad. 
Twas thrue I didn't vote fr it, bein' that I heerd Stephen A. 
Douglas say 'twas onconstitootional . . ." 

10. Congressional Globe, 3 ist Congress, ist Session, Appendix, p. 371. 

11. It was only the division of free soil votes between Fremont and 
Fillmore that saved the Democrats from defeat in 1856. 

Chapter IV 

1. Douglas, we might observe, attempted, through the wise conduct 
of party politics, to achieve what Calhoun wanted when he called 
for the "concurrent majority." How much better was Douglas's pol- 
icy, which would have attempted to secure the substance without 
the offensive forml 

2. Milton, op. cit, p. 155. 

3. January 6, 1845: Congressional Globe, 28th Congress, 2nd Ses- 
sion, Appendix, p. 95. 

4. In the Senate, March 23, 1848. The Works of Daniel Webster 
(Boston, 1860), V, p. 300. 

5. W. E. Binkley, American Political Parties (New York: Alfred A. 
Knopf, 1947), p. 82. 

6. Ibid., p. 121. 

7. Collected Works, II, p. 323. 

8. Ibid., IV, p. 86. 

9. Cf. note 3 above. 

10. Cf. Life of Stephen A. Douglas, by James W. Sheahan (New 
York, 1860), p. 92. 

11. Webster, Works, V, p. 289. 

12. Ibid., I, pp. 355-57. Webster incorporated much of this passage 
into his March 7, 1850, speech. 

13. Randall, op. cit, H, pp. 29-31. 

14. Webster, Works, III, p. 65. 

15. Congressional Globe, 32nd Congress, ist Session, p. 70. 


16. Collected Works, I, p. 438. 

17. Webster, Works, VI, pp. 494, 495. 
i8 a . Collected Works, II, p. 276. 

i8 b . But see also the "Resolutions in Behalf of Hungarian Freedom," re- 
ported by Lincoln to an Illinois meeting, January 9, 1852. Collected 
Works, II, p. 115. They include a denunciation of British oppres- 
sion of Irish patriots, a denunciation which is reserved by com- 
parison with Douglas's. 

19. Sheahan, op. cit., p. 114. 

20. Nevins, op. cit., I, p. 550. 

21. Cf. A History of the Foreign Policy of the United States, by R. G. 
Adams (New York: Macmillan, 1924), p. 233. 

22. Nevins, op. cit, p. 551, n. 14. 

23. Adams, op. cit, p. 231. 

24. Sheahan, op. cit., pp. 105-8. 

25. Ibid., pp. 113, 115. 

26. Ibid., pp. 122, 123. 

27. Ibid., p. 123. 

28. Ibid., pp. 168-86. It is interesting and significant that Professor 
Nevins, after quoting from this speech the passage we have cited 
on p. 31, beginning "The civilized world have always held," goes 
on to condemn Douglas in these words: "It was impossible for 
such a man to comprehend the fervent emotion with which millions 
of freedom loving Northerners regarded the possibility that half 
the great West might become a land of slaves . . ." (Ordeal of the 
Union, II, p. 108.) The significance lies in the fact that Nevins 
should so single out this 1850 speech, which is the one speech 
of Douglas that Lincoln praised highly. Cf. Lincoln, Collected 
Works, II, p. 138: "... a very able production . . . comparing 
favorably with anything from any source, which I had seen on 
that general subject. The reading of it afforded me a good deal 
of pleasure . . ." We would further note that, in this same speech, 
in which he praises Douglas, Lincoln speaks of the error of those 
who had attempted to stir up insurrection in Cuba against Spanish 
rule. The heart of the error, Lincoln said, lay in the fact that the 

Cubans were unfit for civil liberty, a statement which would suggest 
a measure of agreement with the proposition of Douglas which 
Nevins finds so unfeeling. 

Chapter V 

i. The Missouri Controversy, by Glover Moore (University of Ken- 
tucky, 1953), p. 124. 

414 NOTES 

2. Congressional Globe, 28th Congress, 2nd Session, p. 284. 

3. Ibid., 3ist Congress, ist Session, Appendix, p. 369. 

4. Collected Works, II, pp. 262-63. 

5. Cf. note 3 above. 

6. Congressional Globe, 3ist Congress, ist Session, Appendix, p. 343. 

7. Sheahan, op. cit, pp. 163-66. 

Chapter VI 

1. Ordeal of the Union, II, p. 100. 

2. Ibid., p. 115. 

3. Lincoln the President, I, p. 122. 

4. Collected Works, II, p. 258. 

5. Ibid., II, p. 257. 

6. Op. cit., pp. 115-18. 

7. Collected Works, II, p. 259. 

8. Moore, op. cit., p. 251. 

9. Democracy in America, Reeve-Bradley trans. (New York: Vintage, 
1954 Books), Vol. I, pp. 61-63. 

10. P. Orman Ray, The Repeal of the Missouri Compromise, 1909, 
pp. 163 ff. 

Chapter VII 

1. Collected Works, II, p. 254. 

2. Congressional Globe, 32nd Congress